A big part of Gary Cross’ An All Consuming Century is an explanation of just how pervasive consumption became in American life, even for those without much money. Consumption allows those of lower socioeconomic status to emulate those above them. Buying goods helps people ease the psychological distress caused by seeing the wealth and power of those above them. Keeping up with the Joneses means more than just communicating your individuality through your goods–it means not having to bear the burden of falling behind.
With increasing income inequality, it’s becoming harder and harder for the poor to engage in consumption that can ease their psychological burdens. But it seems that the poor are still consuming–according to this story by NPR, people living just above the poverty line still have flat screen TVs, tablets, and computers.
Hearing something like that tends to make people think of the “welfare queens” that were so disparaged during the Reagan administration–women driving around in pink Cadillacs while cashing their welfare checks and living off the government.
But reading this article, you start to realize a couple of things about the consumer goods we think poor people might not deserve. Computers, for example, are almost a necessity for anyone today who wants to get a job or go to school. People with kids need cell phones to be able to keep track of their children.
More importantly, though, it’s hard to conceive of any scenario under which we would deny the poor goods that, as Cross notes, help people create individual and social meanings. In addition to failing to get people proper education, jobs, and social support, would we also deny them the goods that the rest of Americans are using to define themselves and their relationships to others? Can we simultaneously make consumerism the dominant “ism” in American life and tell a substantial (and growing) part of the population that they can’t participate? It certainly seems like the American population feels that the poor aren’t “worthy” of participating in consumerism–would it be easier to address the narratives of “consumerism” or the lower class participation in it?