Why do we blame the poor for buying stuff they can’t afford but not the ones who sell it to them?

Growing up, only a few blocks separated my home from one of the poorer neighborhoods in town. We drove through it from time to time, passing that one house with the huge satellite dish (it was the 90s) and the sports car parked outside.

The house and its occupants (who we never met, much less saw) became for me the epitome of everything wrong with poor people in America: they were poor because they spent what little they had on frivolous luxuries, all while (presumably) living off the government in their dilapidated house. They had no discipline, no work ethic, and therefore deserved none of my sympathy.

All of this I inferred from a quick drive past their house.

So I guess I’m not surprised that some people voiced a similar sentiment in response to last week’s post, including this person’s description of how he thinks the typical poor person spends their money (trigger warning: unsubtle racist stereotyping):

Cable TV $1500 a year
Cell phones for the family $2000 a year
New dr dre beats audio headphones $400 dollars for the family
Xbox $500 dollars
New Jordan’s and matching hoodies $800 a year
New rims for your whip $1000
Pack a day smoking $1200 a year per person X 2
Two monster energy drinks a day $1200 a year per person X 2…

Don’t tell me poor people can’t afford decent food… Don’t blame society for repeated stupid decisions by a certain percentage of the population, and then tell me I’m supposed to feel bad for them and subsidize their lifestyle. I’d like 4 monster energy drinks, some friggen ho ho’s and donuts and some lottery tickets to. The difference is I’m SMART enough not to do that every d*** day.

Too many of us use prejudice and caricature to justify an utter lack of sympathy for the poor, to rationalize the distance we’ve put between us and them.

But there’s something else worth noting. Even if it’s true that some people in poverty make things worse by buying stuff they don’t need and can’t afford (it’s a good thing the rest of us would never do that), we ought to ask why. Another commenter, Evan, hit the nail on the head:

Maybe if we didn’t live in a consumer culture that constantly tries to sell us wonderful things, and maybe if we didn’t treat being poor as a thing to be ashamed of, people would spend less on status symbols?

The top 100 advertisers spent more than $100 billion last year trying to convince us we need newer cell phones, faster cars, better makeup, and more credit card debt. They inundate us with billboards, banner ads, and TV spots telling us we’re not good enough unless we buy their stuff.

Do we really think this relentless barrage of advertising has no impact on our behavior, our sense of worth, our understanding of what we really need?

Everyone should be held responsible for their choices and actions. But that doesn’t just mean poor people who buy the $100 billion lie. It means those who sold it to them in the first place.

It means those who spend billions telling people it’s OK to go into debt. It’s OK to pay later. You can always take out a payday loan (at an undisclosed APR of 4,214%, of course). Just buy more stuff. How else will you be fit to walk the earth?

This exploitation in the name of “commerce” and “economic growth” is nothing new. Notice how the Old Testament prophet Amos described the merchants of Israel, who counted the minutes till the end of each holy day — which, among other things, were meant to be a temporary reprieve from such predatory commercialism:

“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

Their exploitation of the poor, God warned, would have consequences:

I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

All of us, rich and poor, make bad choices from time to time. And we often have to live with the consequences of those choices. But shouldn’t those who lay the trap be held responsible, not just those who walk into it?

2 thoughts on “Why do we blame the poor for buying stuff they can’t afford but not the ones who sell it to them?

  1. As a poor person, a little over $11K a year, I would like to say that I don’t think it’s so much those who sell as it is living in a society where wealth abounds and seeing the difference. It’s a society based on dollar value and not human value. It’s a sense of individualism without community.

    I myself did not get another TV when mine died. In fact, I quit watching it several years before it died. I used it only for watching documentaries. I do not live among poor people and I see and hear about enough wealth around me to not have it reinforced by TV. I don’t need to see more about how little value I have in this society.

    Even worse, is that stuff is sold without any value given to the environment (which includes people), which is often made by companies with profits that so far exceed workers wages, whether they be minimum wage jobs or higher up the scale. It is a way of saying that I own the company, the profits are mine, and you, the worker, have less value.

    And, BTW, in terms of that 40% that was mentioned on a prior post, I would be willing to bet that those are mostly people who are disabled. Call us losers, if you will, but we likely work as hard as those people working a couple of jobs. Most of us work part time if we can. It takes more time to do less than most people because of disability. No one wants to work more and values work more than those who are unable to do it. No one in his or her right mind wants to stay poor and struggle daily with basic necessities.

    And one more thing…my yearly budget:
    Mortgage (most people don’t get by this cheap for rent or mortgage: $2560
    Utilities (phone, internet, electric): $1900
    Heat: $1500
    Car: (insurance, repairs, gas): $1500
    That leaves me less than $4000 for food, other necessities, like general household items, my dog, appliances that break down, “new” used car when the old one goes, garden supplies (I do grow a lot of my own food) and about $600 a year for my bad habit of smoking. And people need to get off the smoking rampage for poor people until they understand what it’s like to quit when your life is always so stressful. I’ve seen a few poor people digging butts out of public ashtrays. I’ve seen people who only smoke what they can bum. No where near a pack a day.

    Are there those who have cable and cell phones for everyone (if you’re poor you often need one for safety.) Probably a lot. Are there many who have all those other things…Xbox, new Jordan’s, etc.? Probably very few.


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