Why Do We Keep Insisting That Poor People Need To Be Miserable?

We need to stop policing poverty. Being poor doesn't mean being the Poor Little Match Girl — and that's a good thing.
Publish date:
April 8, 2015
poverty, benefits, poor

In case you missed it, conservative American lawmakers are on a tear to make sure that poor people never have any fun, because you're only entitled to public assistance in the United States if you live a life of abject misery and depression. Poor people who sit sadly at home staring at the wall are totes eligible for TANF and food assistance — people who go out and do things like swimming are not, because they're obviously not following the social contract that requires poor people to be deeply unhappy.

The habit of policing poverty that's arisen in recent years is frustrating from both a policy and a social perspective. On the policy end, it's used to increasingly narrow benefits eligibility and to push for shrinking down the list of items poor people are allowed to purchase with their benefits: This is particularly obvious with food assistance, with proposals that people only be allowed to buy certain "acceptable" foods with their SNAP funding. While banning so-called "junk food" would effectively require an act of Congress, that hasn't stopped people from trying to do just that — and from shaming people who buy things deemed "junk" with food assistance.

From a social perspective, enforcing the idea that poor people always and should be unhappy is both dangerous and frustrating. The idea that poverty goes hand in hand with an unhappy state is an ancient one, but it really came into full flower with Dickens and the like, when they wrote stories about abject poverty in the tenements of London, New York, and elsewhere. Their goal might have been to shame society at large for allowing people to live in such conditions, but at the same time, they promoted a charity model of dealing with poverty, and they implied that being poor took a very specific form and always looked the same.

If we believe Dickens, poverty during the late 1800s looked like large families crammed into one-room apartments in drafty, cold, filthy tenements, with only an outdoor toilet shared with a number of other families to call their own. It meant children toiling in industrial facilities and parents dying of tuberculosis, with an increased risk of injuries for parents and children alike. Texts from this era didn't explore other, sometimes insidious, forms of poverty and how they expressed themselves.

While our image of poverty has shifted today, people generally have a very specific vision of what a "poor person" looks like in the West — usually a person of color living in a small, cramped house, taking the bus or relying on a junky car, owning ill-fitting and decrepit clothing, relying on government benefits for survival, working a series of crappy jobs, but, most importantly, being miserable.

For the Global South, definitions of poverty are even more narrow; the image of starving African children or Indian children begging in the street is pervasive, with Westerners looking on benevolently when people "find a few moments of happiness" in a spontaneous football game or get a chance to go to school for a few years. Being poor and being happy are mutually exclusive and in order to be considered a member of the "deserving poor," someone has to demonstrate that she lives a life of acute sadness.

Which is not to say that being poor is fun, because it is not. But it's not unilaterally awful, either, nor should it be. It's possible to face hardship without having that be the only aspect of your life, and people shouldn't be defined wholly by one aspect of their experiences — poverty — when they're so much more than that. Which is a good thing, because living a one-dimensional life is not a pleasant experience. But society insists that being poor should always look one way, and that way is sadness incarnate in all contexts, all the time. Poor people are the ones who look wistfully through department store windows, who pull out PB&J at lunch, who have to go to the library to read because they don't own a single book.

This sets up a situation where people who are happy, though struggling, aren't considered truly poor by society at large, and the same goes for people who experience emotional and familial ups and downs. That's underscored by the idea that poor people shouldn't be allowed to pay for entertainment or to use government benefits for things they enjoy; because being poor means you can't go to the movies, can't go to the theatre, shouldn't get to see live dance or music performances, can't eat a meal out now and then, or take a vacation. If you want government benefits, you need to earn them by providing evidence that you live a meagre existence with no enrichment — or you should be stricken from the rolls.

In Kansas, Republicans are angling to prohibit recipients of government benefits from using those benefits to pay for "entertainment," which, oddly enough, includes swimming, apparently. This seems like a peculiar policy choice given the moral and social panic over the "obesity epidemic" and the fact that swimming is an excellent form of exercise — one that happens to be particularly good for larger bodies because it reduces stress on the joints. Swimming is a great way not just to have fun and feel good in your body, but to develop strength and endurance, if that's what you want to do. If the government wants to insist that fat people are a burden, surely anything that would potentially reduce (haha) fatness would be a policy we should promote.

Likewise, the bill won't allow people to receive massage and bodywork (being poor is, understandably, stressful, and bodywork can help people manage stress as well as the pain and physical strain associated with the kinds of jobs low-income Americans are most likely to find themselves in, like food service and agriculture). Moreover, people can't spend money on things like "adult-oriented entertainment," nail salons, and spas.

Some people might regard these things as frivolous. And they might not necessarily be life necessities. But that doesn't really matter. Poor people are entitled to a high quality of life, and that includes a life that includes entertainment and, yes, a little happiness now and then. Such legislation underscores common social attitudes about the worthy poor and who should be eligible for benefits, implying that people who like to have fun aren't really poor.

Being poor can be seriously awful. Having access to entertainment makes your life better when you're dealing with grim situations, and it also humanizes you; people who don't want to have fun on some level are rather unusual. Why does the government insist that poor people doesn't deserve to enjoy happiness? Isn't happiness supposed to be part of the great mythical American way?

Over in Missouri, lawmakers are busily at work trying to restrict items that people can purchase with food assistance, cutting things like steak, seafood, soft drinks, chips, and so forth. Lawmakers are claiming that this is about waste and nutrition, but this is about more than that: It's about telling people that they can't have fun. And telling them that if they want government support, they need to play the part of being poor to the government's specifications.

The problems with promoting policies about which foods are and aren't okay are myriad, and play deeply into American attitudes about food and society, but in this case they take on a new layer of meaning. Poor people can use their benefits however they want — they earned them — and shouldn't be shamed for how they choose to utilize their funding. Maybe someone prefers to eat fish because it's lighter and high in omega 3 and her doctor recommended it, or because she doesn't want to eat land animals. Maybe someone else likes eating chips because he associates them with the nostalgia of watching the game with his mom when he was a kid.

The point is that no one should really care how they use their benefits. Food assistance is provided at a fixed amount based on income and family size, and beyond that, people can and should make their own decisions.

These kinds of policies police what poverty should look like, and they also infantilize poor people, turning them into a collective mass that needs guidance from the government because it can't guide itself. Everyone experiences poverty differently, and poverty looks really different depending on where you live, what kind of family you have, and the kind of quality of life you want to have.

Poverty usually isn't a barrel of laughs, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun while being poor — and when policies like this arise and are taken seriously, it sends a growing message that poor people don't deserve to have fun.

Photo credit: Paul Downey, Creative Commons