In a society where misery policing is commonplace and sometimes actively encouraged, people feel endlessly free to comment on the lives of poor people. And everyone seems to have their own personal rubric of what makes someone ‘poor’ versus ‘not poor.’ The GOP, for example, has declared that having a refrigerator in your house means you’re not really poor, because obviously having a fridge is a mark of tremendous wealth and power.
Indeed, one of the most obvious ways to directly police poverty is by interrogating the belongings of poor people, challenging them on the grounds that they aren’t things a ‘real’ poor person should have; evidently, people in poverty should live with the shirts on their backs and little else. If they have other things, they’re clearly working the system for those government benefits they get, and they should be publicly outed and shamed for claiming to be poor when they obviously aren’t. These kinds of attitudes create an extremely hostile environment for poor people, and they make it very difficult to talk about what it’s like to live while poor without being constantly interrogated and required to produce the appropriate poverty credentials.
The cell phone, for example, has become a bit of a flashpoint when it comes to talking about poverty, particularly in the homeless community. People seem to be under the impression that owning a cell phone makes it impossible to be poor, despite the fact that they are ubiquitous in US society; in fact, it can be cheaper to own a cell phone than to carry a land line. And for poor folks, that level of connection can be critically important. A cell phone is needed to find work and network with people, to interact with social services, and, yes, to socialise and build community with friends and people who may work in solidarity together to address specific problems in a given community.
The hatred of poor people who have cell phones turns the cell phone into a symbol. It’s troubling to see people harassing people in poverty for owning cell phones because of what it implies. It suggests that poor people shouldn’t be trying to find work and find ways to address their poverty, which is effectively what people are saying when they claim that people with cell phones aren’t ‘really’ poor. Furthermore, it indicates that people believe poverty should be socially isolating, that poor people do not have a right to communicate and that the existence of social networks precludes an actual state of poverty. If you’re poor, you shouldn’t have friends or a social life.
Mobile phones can be maintained for an extremely small cost via pay-as-you-go plans and in some cases are actually donated to low-income members of the community specifically for use in networking. Having a cell phone is not necessarily a marker of any kind of economic clout and power; you don’t even need access to the credit system to own a cell phone thanks to the widespread availability of disposable burner phones. People can freely allow minutes to expire if they can’t afford to maintain them, and in fact many poor people do, because when faced with the choice between eating and topping up the phone, food may well take priority.
This shouldn’t have to be articulated to justify the fact that some poor people own cell phones. For one thing, it should be fairly common knowledge, especially among people who plan on criticising people who own cell phones; it’s ill-advised to attack someone on the basis of something you don’t know very much about. For another, people are not required to provide personal financial information to complete strangers to illustrate that they have reached a sufficient level of poverty.
Misery policing means that poor people must constantly defend themselves when it comes to everything they own and every place they go. Having any kind of technology seems to place someone in the ‘not poor’ category and that means that poor people with technology are forced to walk a fine line. They can freely admit that technology is part of their lives and they are yes, actually poor, and deal with the constant hassling from people who refuse to accept this and think it is their job to micromanage the lives of others. Or they can attempt to conceal their use of technology, which is personally inhibiting and perpetuates the myth that poor people are all alone in a desert with no method of communicating or familiarity with technology.
Acknowledging that poverty is not something that can necessarily be defined by the possessions people have is critical, and yet many people seem to have serious resistance to the idea. That includes progressives who don’t seem interested in interrogating their own ideas about what poverty looks like and what the lives of poor people involve; it’s present in the sneers implied in comments about homeless people having cell phones or someone ‘claiming’ to be poor and having a laptop.
At the same time, many progressives rely heavily on technology in their own lives, focusing on online organising and a high level of computer and Internet fluency. This creates a strange sort of double-bind; they claim to be advocating for the underclasses, yet do so in an environment the underclasses aren’t supposed to be able to access because if they do, they aren’t in the underclasses any more. Nothing about us without us? Not so much.
This paradox remains largely unacknowledged; in my own direct activism I’m constantly infuriated by how many people are shocked when I suggest providing materials in non-digital media to ensure a wider reach into the community. These are the same people who insist that poor people don’t have cell phones, so they’re freely admitting that the populations they advocate for (not work with) can’t even access their advocacy.