Recently, a community college newspaper offered a fashion profile of several students. I was amazed and alarmed to learn that, if they were telling the truth, they were spending $200-plus on a pair of shoes and the same for a handbag. It’s true that the recent economic downturn has sent middle and upper middle class students to community college, especially this particular one, because of its reputation and transfer record, but I know for a fact that many, if not most students there can’t afford two-hundred-dollar shoes.
But what do I mean by “afford”? Working class and poor people can sometimes binge financially just to have the feeling or image of wealth and comfort. I knew a woman who worked in a factory, not one of the old-time, high-paying ones, but a new, low-paying one, and drove a Mercedes. She didn’t own a house and she gave up a lot of things, but she loved the way people looked at her and the compliments she sometimes got at gas stations and elsewhere from other people, especially those who also drove Mercedes. Although I don’t have access to formal studies on this phenomenon, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that minimum wage folks are giving up longterm financial progress for short-term psychological rewards. Let’s say a poor person has never travelled, and one reason is that she orders a four-dollar latté every day. If she put away eighty dollars a month, in a year she could go on a cruise, or live in a better apartment, or have a down payment for a car.
Recently the New Yorker profiled a young man who worked for a fashion magazine and had spent $20,000 on a man-purse. He acknowledged that it might have been better to buy a car. He also said the shopping experience was not especially delightful. The customer service was ho-hum. However, it seems certain that the bag represented something for him. Certainly, he was the center of amazement and awe at work. People came by to view the bag. But could that possibly be enough?
In cases like these, the commodity’s use-value is almost nil compared to its symbolic value. Someone in the highest echelons has decreed this object to be of worth; indeed, its price alone makes it gawkworthy. Is this like the mania gamblers sometimes experience, the rush of throwing money around with extreme recklessness? How tragic that a “big” life experience for some should be spending far too much on a consumer item. I know this sounds harsh but how empty can life get? Do we live inside a commercial?
I’ll Show You! (How You Can Take Advantage of Me)
In college, my old winter coat had gotten so old that no matter how often I mended the lining, it was done for. My parents sent me seventy-five dollars to buy a new one. I didn’t have a car, I was terrified of thrift stores (and possible exposure that could result from shopping there–see a previous post) so I went to the one department store within walking distance, a JC Penneys. To me, this was a fairly upscale store. As I walked around the carrel of coats wearing my frayed jeans and old shoes, the salesgirl eyed me with suspicion. I knew she thought I was there to shoplift.
I tried on several coats. There wasn’t a great selection, but something in me burned to show her that in fact, I did have the money to shop there. It felt good, for a moment, to bring out my cash and say, “I’ll take this one.” Later, I overheard someone in my co-op say, “I know I haven’t touched bottom as long as I’m not shopping at Sears and Penneys.” She might have been a nice person in many ways and I’m sure she was completely unaware of my purchase, but I could never forgive her.
Years later, I worked at a nonprofit in a quasi-professional job, making about $25,000 a year, and my bus home took me through a luxurious shopping district. I saw a beautiful dress in a window; day after day, I saw it and coveted it. I knew it would look great on me and I felt I should have it, now while I was young, not decades later when I would have the money but not the looks. I also knew this was not a shop within my budget. One day, feeling defeated and stressed, I walked in. The dress was eye-poppingly expensive, and the salesperson, a beautiful fashionable young woman, said nothing to me. Once again, the urge arose in me to show her, but this time, I had more wisdom. I knew there wasn’t three hundred or four hundred dollars’ worth of happiness in wearing that dress. Not compared to other things I could have.
When people have a hunger for public approval or even just to fit in, when they have a hole in them that stems from being at the bottom, on the outside, they are easy prey to consumer fairy tales. That’s why sometimes we see people on welfare with purebred dogs. It doesn’t mean they are getting such huge government payments that they can afford a purebred dog. It just means they are going without boots or a bike or a dentist.
Why We Need Working Class Values and Culture
The larger consumer culture does not serve poor people well. One could even say poor people are the victims of it. Some dedicated poor people are able to filter out the siren call of excess spending, to save and move forward, to maximize what they have and honor who they are. I’ve met working class people proud to be working class and proud of their culture—the pickles and apple butter they make, the sauerkraut or salsa they eat, their gardens of peppers or potatoes, their ability to repair their own cars and replace their own windows— but I wonder if TV culture, two parents working, and schools that have cut out practical training, have dealt a death-blow to this kind of pride. I hope not.
We live within a larger culture that despises fast-food work and ridicules those who do it (How many comedies illustrate failure with a fast-food hat?) yet Burger King and McDonald’s are the tenth and eleventh largest employers in the U.S. last time I checked. Even there, little pockets of pride exist despite the larger culture’s campaign of shame. I remember a young woman from a ghetto area whom I met at college writing center, and she spoke without irony about the responsibility and value she’d gotten from her fast-food job, how she was proud to be entrusted with money, with the keys to open and close the building. She had learned how to do things, and she was calmly planted in her self-esteem. It would be good to see more of that.