In the Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Benthall reviews Jeremy Seabrook’s Pauperland in which Seabrook claims that the poor in Britain are no longer treated with dignity but are viewed with disdain. The poor, in turn, pursue “a degraded version of aristocratic grandeur.” Benthall writes that according to Seabrook:
In earlier times, attempts were made by the comfortably off to curb the desires of poor people, and their profligacy was frowned on. But high consumption by the poor is now encouraged as a source of commercial profit. Bombarded with incitements to spend, the poor no longer aim at securing a modest sufficiency, but tend to become caricatures of the rich.
Seabrook may be right that the poor today, more so than fifty years ago, attempt to imitate the “ostentatious kitsch and bling” of the wealthy. Here in Appalachia, I have driven past trailers with plastic toys, bikes, trampolines, plastic swimming pools, play sets, and so forth, strewn across the yard in the rain. Many poor are indeed consumed with consumerism.
At the same time, there are also those trailers that are free of clutter, with a small vegetable garden to the side and flowers in front. My wife, who works at the local library, encounters both the demanding, chain-smoking couple on food stamps who check out movie after movie and the High School girl who works to support her parents while attending school and who still finds time to check out books for her younger siblings.
So, yes, the poor are more ostentatious, but not without qualification. There are still those who live a life of what Seabrook calls “modest sufficiency.”
Nor is the solution to our disdain for the poor the hatred of the wealthy as Seabrook proposes. Being rich is not evil, and an inordinate love of temporal things–greed–is as easily exercised in a free market economy as it is in a command one.
Update: Let me add that personal charity towards the poor offers the opportunity to identify with another person’s poverty and is a tacit acknowledgement that wealth and human dignity are two separate things. Hate simply breeds more hate.