Every so often, a Republican politician or conservative think tank comes out with the argument that American poor people are not really poor, because they have refrigerators and televisions and even video game consoles. There are all sorts of factual reasons to slam these arguments. People have windfalls. They get hand-me-downs. They own relics of more affluent pasts.
But philosophically, morally, politically, the truth is this: I want poor people to have televisions and video games. Oh, of course, within reason. Any luxury can be taken too far at any level of wealth. But, at base, if poor people seek joy and distraction as I and the people I love seek joy and distraction, who am I to judge? I am not poor, have never been poor, and likely never will be, but why would I believe that anyone else's need for relaxation and comfort is less than mine? Some of us may always have more, but the right to judge others for reaching for small pleasures is not something any of us really have.
When Republicans, and sometimes liberal Democrats, get the vapors at poor people with televisions, they frame it as a modern affliction. "Televisions, my word! Why, back in my day ..." But there's a long tradition on the left that says that progress and justice aren't just about nutrition but about beauty. As the great poem and song "Bread and Roses" puts it:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;To say "because you have less than me, you do not deserve joy or beauty; because you have little, what you have should be grim and colorless and flavorless" is simply inhumane. It's also profoundly unrealistic. We live in a country with a whole lot of poverty and a lot of very cheap, very tasty junk food. Our political and economic systems make that junk food one of the few immediate pleasures available to many people—and then we judge them for eating it, rather than actually fighting poverty or making bigger and healthier pleasures available and affordable. A politics of bread and roses would challenge the idea that having enough food to avoid starvation and enough shelter to avoid freezing is all unemployed people or low-wage workers can reasonably expect.
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too!
We should also acknowledge that, as we'll see below the fold, sometimes, what appears from the outside to be wasteful luxury actually conveys real benefits in negotiating the challenges of poverty.
After stories of black shoppers facing suspicion or being detained by police because they bought luxury goods hit the news, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote about "the logic of stupid poor people" and the politics of respectability. Her own family, she explained, had a little more money and a little more education than many of the people around them:
I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”If you're white and college educated, you can maybe get away with looking like a slob without drawing suspicion or condescension or harassment. Everyone isn't so privileged, so if you have that privilege and can't imagine your way outside it, understand that what looks like needless, frivolous luxury may actually be an armor or a strategy.
Yet again, I come back to the notion that looking good or being wrapped in soft fabrics from time to time shouldn't be an off-limits luxury for 30 or more percent of the population.
It's also worth noting that the objection to pleasure-in-poverty is very often nothing more than a dodge. It's about justifying hunger, coming from the impulse that led House Republicans to push for $40 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts over 10 years, cuts that would kick millions off the program even though it only pays for food, and not for all that much of that. And it's advanced in a context in which the very wealthy make endless, huge philanthropic gifts to institutions of art and culture—roses, too—while not giving nearly as much to bread for the hungry:
[In late November] the New York Public Library acquired the papers of Tom Wolfe for the sum of $2.15 million. The material, which fills about 190 boxes and includes correspondence between Mr. Wolfe and his tailor, was paid for largely with a private donation, and while the figure is hardly exorbitant in the realm of cultural philanthropy, which vastly outpaces social-service philanthropy, it represents more than twice the amount of the biggest gift ever made by an individual to the Food Bank for New York City.The fight for bread and roses, too, is a political and systemic one, one that relies on decreasing inequality and fighting not just poverty but widespread near-poverty. It's also a cultural one, one that requires saying "those people are like me and like me they deserve pleasure" or makes a million-dollar gift of a lot of food for the hungry as glamorous and prestigious as a name on a museum exhibit.
To take it to a personal level, a few years ago I was leaving a workout at the YMCA and I saw a tree decorated with gift wishes from disadvantaged local children. I scoured the tree and was frustrated and dismayed that a great number of the kids were asking for video game consoles. Such a big present! Video games, pah, they're not my values! Luckily, a friend pushed me on it. He found a refurbished PlayStation for sale and split the cost with me.
Ultimately, it was a gut check. Why shouldn't these kids get to play video games? On a practical level, if you live in a dangerous neighborhood, video games are a way of passing time safely indoors. And sure, I don't enjoy them myself (okay, unless you count Angry Birds on my phone or Candy Crush Saga on my computer, and doesn't that say a thing or two about privilege) but everyone doesn't have to share my hobbies. Realistically, it's a gift that a child would outgrow much more slowly than a particular doll or book or board game—the things I guess I'd been looking for on that tree. So when I read the statistics about poor people with video game consoles, I know that I contributed in a very small way to them. And I'm glad of that and proud of that. That's my politics. Bread and roses, too.