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The Cultural Masking of Poverty in America

Sample Paper 3 by Shane Johnson - Fall 2012

In middle school, our class was given the opportunity to adopt a family for the holidays. The process involved collecting money, toys, food, and other gifts for a whole month by all of the students in the class. About a week before Christmas I was selected along with three other students to hand deliver the truckload of goods to the family in need. We were told by selecting organization that it was a family of five living in poverty; however, when we got there we saw a different story. It was indeed a family of five, but the living conditions were not what we expected. The large apartment where we dropped off the goods had a massive TV (which at the time was exceptionally expensive and not myself nor my fellow students had this luxury at home), the woman who met us was exceptionally well taken care of (new manicure and hair styling), and the family kids were sitting around playing video games. On the car ride back from the delivery, I distinctly remember my teacher trying to insist that we had done a good deed even if it didn't seem like we had. As a 12 year old, I felt disappointed because I believed that the goods should have gone to a more "needy" family. As an adult when I think back on this event I question what poverty is in the United States, and I believe it is masked by consumerism and cultural intolerance.

The poverty line in the United States is equal to an income three times the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet, which for a family of four in 2007 equaled $20,650 (Giddens 219). There are a lot of people who believe that this line is not a true reflection of poverty. Ichiro Kawachi, professor of social epidemiology at HSPH and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School believes that: " Going to movies, eating out at restaurants, going on occasional vacations, having Internet access and a cell phone--none of these things are in the federal poverty level... What matters for functioning in society is what the average person is able to do..." (Gudrais). The same article that mentioned Professor Kawachi, also stated that a recent Gallup Poll showed that when asking people how much income they need not to feel deprived, that level has raised much more steeply than the Consumer Price Index (Gudrais). The examples in the Gudrais article show that people in the U.S. believe that having the basics (food, housing, sanitation systems, clothing, etc) are not enough to function in the U.S; functioning citizens (even those living under the poverty line) need to be consumers. However, when I ask people who do not live below the poverty line the question: "If you can afford movies, vacations, and eating out, do you live in poverty?" the answer is generally no. So why do people living below the poverty line believe they need these things, and why do people living above it think poor people don't? I believe the answer can be explained by looking at cultural sentiments about poverty and examining the power of consumerism.

Our textbook states that people in the U.S. have exceptionally negative attitudes about the poor; in fact Americans express more negative attitudes about the poor the more than any other Western country (Giddens 220). Americans believe that poverty is a condition that is optional and changeable, meaning that people chose to live in poverty and have the choice to overcome poverty if they work hard enough (Gudrais). I believe there are a few exceptions to this rule for people who are disabled, mentally handicap, and the elderly (I believe we tolerate their poverty and believe it is not a choice). But in fact, most of the working poor cannot lift themselves out of poverty (Giddens 220). The video "Race- The Power of an Illusion: Episode Three: The House We Live In" highlights how the majority of blacks in the U.S. cannot escape poverty because of the racism and discrimination inflicted on them in the past. Despite the fact that institutional racism no longer exists, there are lasting effects that impact their everyday chances of moving out of poverty. People who currently live in poverty have less access to quality education, jobs, and services that will promote them out of poverty. Even when they try to find better opportunities like applying for better paying jobs, they may be rejected because their clothes and personal appearance reflect their poor conditions (Gudrais). This reality of rejection based on general attitudes about poverty, encourages people living below the poverty line to change the perception about themselves. This perception can be change by buying goods.

If we look back at the adopted family, the class felt that a family living in poverty clearly could not own a $3000 dollar TV and afford a manicure. But, their reality was different from the fa├žade they presented. The reality was that the family could not afford groceries, heating bills, and other staples that are required for living. So why did the family not sell the TV? The TV was an attempt to overcome poverty equal to that of applying for a better paying job. Consumerism is so ingrained into our culture that like Professor Kawachi states, a functioning member of society must eat out and use a cell-phone or face the risk of complete rejection. But, at the same time this consumerism is masking the reality of poverty. The head of household must buy a nice outfit for an interview but then forgoes buying 3 days worth of groceries because if they don't they will not get the job. Once they get the job, their sub-standard education from their poor neighborhood local school prevents them getting a promotion and getting out of the neighborhood. Should the family have to choose between groceries or an interview outfit? No, but consumerism and cultural attitudes towards the poor say yes.

In the first paper I wrote for this class, I stated that classism is the easiest status to overcome because I grew up in poverty and now no longer live in poverty. However, as I mentioned in my original paper, I am the only person from my childhood who has been able to overcome this status. I wrote the paper from the perspective that poverty is a changeable condition, however, now I see that I am an anomaly and that is not the reality for the majority. My perspective was molded by the cultural masking of the reality of poverty. Consumerism and cultural sentiments about the poor mask that poverty is not a choice. Consumerism says that if a person has a $3000 TV, they can afford groceries and are undeserving of charity. Cultural attitudes about the poor state they if they worked harder and changed their lifestyle they can escape their status. Ultimately, there needs to be a shift in attitudes and less pressure to be a consumer, otherwise poverty will continue to be as inescapable tomorrow as it is today. I would like to note that even though the U.S. has the highest levels of consumption, are habits are spreading. The most densely populated slum is located in Mumbai, in the slum 1.2 million people live on less than 20 Rupees which is the equivalent of 37 cents a day (Bharucha). This is without a doubt extreme poverty. However, the slum is familiar with a well-known business man known as the Cable-Man that has managed to provide 170 cable channels to almost all of its 1.2 million residents (Discovery Atlas: India Revealed). Globalization has shown that western cultures are being adopted globally; I hope the U.S. changes its attitudes about the poor and the importance of being a consumer before they are adopted elsewhere.

Works Cited

Bharucha, Nauzer. "1.2 million in city earn less than Rs 20/day" The Times of India 1 Sep 2009: Online.

Discovery Atlas: India Revealed. Dir. William Hicklin Perf. Mira Nair Discovery Channel, 2008. Film.

Giddens, Anthony, Mitchell Duneier, Richard, P Appelbuam, and Deborah Carr. Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Gudrais, Elizabeth. "Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide--and growing--gap between rich and poor" Harvard Magazine July/August 2008: Online.

Race- The Power of an Illusion: Episode Three: The House We Live In. Dir. Larry Adelman Perf. CCH Pounder California Newsreel, 2003. Film.