Poverty as explicit entertainment

The myriad ways in which the middle class engages with poverty betray a number of social anxieties, ranging from the desire for distance to avoid responsibility for class inequality to an almost vicious pleasure in mocking people from low-income backgrounds to reinforce the notion that they are placed where they belong, thus absolving middle and upper class people of responsibility. Both of these neat little tricks allow people to create a bubble in which poverty is a social problem, but one of its own making, not their responsibility or something they need to actively address and engage with. There’s another form of relationship to poverty, though, that’s deeply troubling as well, and that’s the use of poverty as an inspirational tool, a trend which dehumanises low-income people and turns them into objects of morbid fascination.

People have been advancing inspirational poverty narratives for centuries, though they really came into full flower with Dickens — look to Tiny Tim or Oliver Twist, both of whom are calculated to wrench at the heart not just because they are poor, but because they are plucky poor. They’re proud poor, and they struggle to survive without resorting to base means. They are the image of the deserving poor, the sort of people the middle class can have sympathy for and pat on the back. The same kind of narrative runs throughout media about poverty that persists to the present day, but the internet has created an explosion of it, just as it’s created a huge explosion of media in general.

The ready ability to create media, and the proliferation of platforms for distributing it, means that there’s just so much more to plow through, and so many ways for people to find content that appeals to them. Sites like Upworthy do outstandingly well because they calculate on traffic related to ‘inspirational’ material that will make people feel good about themselves. Either it’s sweet little stories or do-gooder pieces or heart-warming tales about baby animals or whatever, all intended to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling about themselves and the world. And in a world that’s often seriously dark and unjust, the draw to things that feel simple and good is understandable, but they come with sinister overtones.

One victim of this kind of narrative is the low-income community, which often crops up in these kinds of inspirational stories. Many are specifically about children, a callback to Dickens that traffics on the idea of innocence and vulnerability, traits that we associate with children very strongly. Kids, we think, are thrust into their circumstances rather than being responsible for them and thus they become objects of pity even as we create structural systems that contribute to intergenerational poverty. In 20 years, when those kids are poor adults, they’ll be viewed with disdain for failing to bootstrap their way out, but for the time being, they’re innocent of all sin.

There are lots of stories about kids making sacrifices for their families, couched in a framing that pitches this as generosity and selflessness, without any kind of examination of how messed up it is to see children accepting personal hardship for the benefit of their families overall. This is in fact something low-income children do, but there’s nothing inspirational about it. It’s horrifying. It’s awful that children give up opportunities, go hungry, and make changes in their lives because they have to support their families, that teens go to work instead of taking advantage of after school programmes — indeed, it’s these very structures that make intergenerational poverty, because forcing kids to sacrifice means they can’t go to college, can’t pursue growth, don’t stand a chance at building better lives for themselves and their own children. This isn’t cute or sweet or inspirational, it’s sickening.

It’s also a reminder that low-income people in general tend to be more generous, tend to be cooperative and interdependent rather than relying on isolationist, bootstrappy modes of thinking because they need solidarity. They understand that the only way to survive in a really harsh climate heavily mediated by class is to work together, not apart or even against each other. Kids in these settings have close ties with their families because they stand with them. Because their parents may be sacrificing themselves to support them, but children and parents alike understand that they have to create a give and take in a climate where neither can survive alone. That’s messed up. The positioning of this as inspirational for middle and upper class people is really deeply disturbing, as it betrays a lack of understanding about poverty but also reinforces harmful social structures by normalising poverty and suggesting there’s something noble in it, which there isn’t. It’s not romantic to be poor.

We also see lots of stories about children being given things — trips, toys, books, etc, and these are also positioned as inspirational. ‘We gave these kindergarteners a trip to an amusement park, and you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!’ These kinds of stories show us glimpses into the lives of people experiencing extreme social deprivation and use it as entertainment, but don’t ask the viewer to explore why the children depicted are so poor. Why they have so few resources. Why a child may not own books or toys, why a classroom is so crowded. Whether the funds used on that pony ride could have been better used. Instead, they position individual approaches to poverty as both appropriate and noble, magnanimous on the part of the wealthy. Instead of entertaining viewers with cutesy stories about poor kids given things, like animals at the zoo with seasonal pumpkins and Christmas trees, these resources could be sunk into substantive change, like providing grants to get more books in classrooms, to expand after school programs, to provide subsidised lunch and take-home packets of food because many poor children get the majority of their nutrition at school. 

When poverty is inspirational entertainment, it’s another distancing factor that absolves the viewer of responsibility for what’s being depicted, and it’s chilling to see that this remains so common so many years after Dickens kicked the bucket.

Image: Poverty, Jan Truter, Flickr