Poverty and the Appropriation Thereof

I was pointed to this article entitledThe Troubling Trendiness Of Poverty Appropriation,” in which the author, July Westhale, notes her discomfort with what she sees as the hipsterization of things that she considers to be poverty markers, such as modular housing (now upsold as “tiny houses”) and cheap foods. She notes:

In writing this, and making note of these circumstances, I’m not trying to penalize or call out radical communities of people who are looking for alternative means to capitalism—capitalism is oppressive as hell, and I am all about alternative means.

But I do think it’s time to start having conversations about how alternative means aren’t a choice for those who come from poverty. We must acknowledge what it means to make space for people who actually need free food or things out of dumpsters, who participate in capitalism because they’ve got a kid at home and they are the only provider. Additionally, we need to shed light on the fact that many people who grew up wanting for more space and access to foods that weren’t available to them don’t understand the glossy pamphlets offering a simpler life.

Because, let me tell you, there is nothing simple about being poor.

This piece has naturally spawned some responses which pretty much boil down to “Jesus, stop being an oversensitive whiner,” which is of course a super-helpful response, so well done on Ben Cohen, the writer of that particular linked response, for so very bravely standing up to the original piece (also well-done on him for taking a piece that was clearly a personal perspective and using it to slag liberals in general; it really speaks to his ability to be on point and incisive).

And what do I, as a former poor person, think about the issues raised in these pieces? Well.

1. Speaking as someone who lived in a trailer park for a portion of his life (while attending one of the most expensive high schools in the country on a scholarship! How’s that for economic intersectionality!), I have to say I never really saw the “tiny house” movement as an upsold appropriation of the circumstances of poverty. I think there’s a difference between the desire for “simplicity” and a desire to hipsterize the circumstances of the poor, although I don’t think it has to be either/or. Someone could be doing both, I suppose.

Personally speaking I’m fascinated by tiny houses, most of which are more expensive, and seem to intentionally have less living space, than actual mobile homes (as an example, you can get a one bedroom mobile home for $20,900, which comes with 532 feet of living space, whereas here’s a tiny home with about 200 square feet of space plus sleeping loft, for $50k). In one sense I think tiny houses are generally clever attempts to maximize space and to make a point that one doesn’t need a lot of space to live reasonably well. In another sense, I think this Portlandia skit about microhouses is painfully on point. I love these tiny little houses as a concept, and occasionally think about how neat it would be to get one and make it a home office. The idea of living in one on a permanent basis, with partner and pets, makes me shudder. I don’t doubt some people can do it. I wish them joy. I’m not one of them.

I don’t generally see tiny houses as an appropriation of poverty living, in part because I often see them as ostentatious signalling of wealth in a different way: Look at me, I could afford to live larger but I’m making a political point, admire me for doing so. This is the part where the Westhale’s comment of “It’s nice you have a choice” is directly on point, since there are a lot of people living “small and simple” because that’s the only thing available to them. But I’m not sure it’s appropriation of poverty any more than having a pied-à-terre is an appropriation of poverty. Small doesn’t implicitly equate to poor in this particular case. Specifically, “simplicity” as a conscious lifestyle concept is kind of a high-end thing. It does seem to me a lot of “simplicity” ends up being about very expensive things, artfully but sparingly deployed. Those things never really had an antecedent in poverty or are intended as commentary on it, hipster or otherwise.

2. I’m likewise largely philosophically untroubled by the appropriation of poverty food/drink/lifestyle by hipsters because in a very general way, that’s what culture is: things invented or serving one group, often disadvantaged or marginalized relative to the dominant cultural group, making their way into larger contexts. Most of the awesome things about American culture came up through marginalized/poor/immigrant groups (and note those categories have a very high overlap). We can (and should!) have a long conversation about what are responsible and irresponsible ways for advantaged people to access and incorporate those awesome things. I’m not seeing it as a net advantage to demand a specific place for everything, and everything only in that place, as it were.

Appropriation is also tricky thing when it comes to discussing poverty specifically (that is, independent of other cultural factors). It’s on point for Westhale to call out the Butter Bar on the subject of what it’s doing when it’s fetishizing poverty. But poverty, while always with us, does not affect the same people in the same way all the time. When Westhale criticizes the hipsters visiting the bar, she appears to be making the assumption that they all come from the same socioeconomic stratum, and that they are all slumming. She may have an argument that they’re all of the same (or similar) socioeconomic stratum now; it’s less obvious that they were always on that stratum. The national Gini coefficient notwithstanding, people do move up (and down) the economic ladder here in the US; I can speak to that personally. Those hipsters at the Butter Bar may be slumming, or maybe they’re not, based on their own history. You can’t always tell just by looking.

This is interesting to me in part because it’s a question I ask myself, in terms of how much I can personally engage in issues relating to poverty. I’ve run the economic gamut here in the US, from living part of my childhood in the lowest decile of the economy to now being an adult on some of the highest rungs on the ladder. At what point, if ever, does my experience and voice on poverty become inauthentic? How much is my experience of poverty mitigated by other external aspects of who I am as a person? When I now, as a well-off person, use my own experience of poverty as part of my creative and/or professional and/or public life, how should that be approached? They’re all things to consider.

(My answer to these, for what it’s worth: I don’t think my experience or voice on poverty will ever be inauthentic, because the fact is I was poor by US standards, and that’s going to stick with me. At the same time I’m not so foolish as to suggest that my thoughts represent anyone else but me and my own lived experience. I got a lot of breaks despite being poor at times, and I don’t pretend otherwise. As for what it means for my creative/professional output, well, you tell me. I will say that as a public person it makes me less than 100% patient with people who evidently opine about poverty straight out of their ass, and I’m not shy about saying so.)

3. I’m pretty sure Westhale and I disagree largely about whether poverty appropriation is taking place (in the case of tiny houses) or is entirely problematic (with the other stuff). I don’t think she’s wrong that it’s worth it to engage on the point that for millions of people in the United States, small and cheap living isn’t a choice or option, it’s just a fact of their lives, and it sucks. For a lot of the folks who don’t have a choice, the fetishization or valorization of things that closely resemble what they have no choice but to live through can be, at the very least, exasperating. It’s not wrong to ask about what’s really going on there, nor is there any harm in acknowledging that it can look and feel different for people who have experience with poverty, than those who don’t.

This is why I think Cohen’s response is pretty shitty. Leaving aside the fact that he’s using a single person’s point of view to thump on an entire class of folks (damn liberals! Harumph! Harumph!), he’s telling Westhale and all the liberals he’s appointed her to represent to shut up, already (“If liberalism wants to survive in the 21st century, this type of nonsense really needs to stop.” Harumph! Harumph!).

And well, you know. Fuck that dude. Westhale doesn’t need to shut up, already. She’s in a space that welcomed her, on her own time, standing up on her own soapbox. She can say whatever the hell she wants. In any event someone who is suggesting that people should shut up about the things he deems inessential to discuss isn’t anyone whose proclamations about what liberalism should do to survive in the 21st century should be responded to with anything other than pointing and laughing. Are we having a moment where people who previously felt restrained about their opinions are now exercising a privilege they (not unreasonably) felt has been denied to them? Why, yes! We are. Are those opinions and hypotheses going to be something that everyone agrees with? Why, no! They aren’t. And that’s fine.

I don’t have to agree with Westhale on the particulars of her argument to say that that her making the argument can have value. It interrogates an issue from a direction I wouldn’t have considered, despite having an experience at least superficially similar to hers. Among other things, it makes me ask why I do have a different opinion about it. From that answer comes useful self-knowledge as well as other benefits. Which is another reason why Cohen and everyone else blithering in one way or another about the uselessness of opinions they don’t want to engage with can cram it up their asses. I accept they’re useless to them, or at least that they fervently want to believe they’re useless to them. They don’t get to make that call for everyone else.