Imagine a world where everyone you consider poor no longer exists. Would that be the end of poverty? Or would those you consider middle-class become the new poor? Now ask yourself if you prefer to be Charlemagne, who ruled France from 768 to 816 or something, or would it be better to live in the present, in Seattle area, making $20,000 a year as a McDonald’s cook, no children, basically living what many would consider a lower middle-class social and economic life? Would you prefer to be king in a world without plumbing, electricity, autos, planes, modern medical care, or internet, or would it be better to be almost “poor” in present day Seattle?
That poverty is a relative concept and “poor people” is a social construct isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s obvious. But too often, how we analyze and interpret the world is framed entirely by academic readings of government created constructs such as race, gender, economic class. I’m not arguing that these constructs are useless. Nor am I saying that these constructs necessarily foment racism, sexism, class warfare, nationalism, and so forth. They’re, when used appropriately, very helpful — think about why your doctor asks you to categorize yourself in terms of race, age, gender, etc. But these constructs can also make it tempting to confuse cause and effect and difficult to find patterns of behavior that traverse social identity and place. It can spawn asinine public policy concepts such as “living wage” that ultimately promote a sense of helplessness among those who identify as or feel poor.
For instance, a recent Cracked.com article on the habits of poor people states that they develop shitty palates because they’re “poor.” Author defines “being poor” as lacking what “normal” people have, as not having enough money to eat “well” (whatever that means), as being on food stamps. Being poor, author contends, is what causes poor people to develop bad habits, to act “poor.” The emphasis is on lack of money as cause. Being poor is defined primarily in economic, not social or behavioral, terms. Lack of *enough* money causes the poor to behave as they do, not the other way around.
Forget about fresh produce or fresh baked goods or fresh anything. Canned vegetables are as cheap as a gang tattoo, and every poor person I knew (including myself) had them as a staple of their diet. Fruit was the same way. Canned peaches could be split between three kids for half the cost of fresh ones, and at the end you had the extra surprise of pure, liquefied sugar to push you into full-blown hyperglycemia.
Let’s set aside the fact that there’s nothing wrong with canned and frozen. Not ideal, but they’re fine as long as they’re not over-processed. Anyway, the argument is that poor people’s palates suck because they don’t have money to eat better, to develop healthier palates. Bullshit. I’ve always found that fresh produce costs less than processed or prepared frozen and canned food (note that I’m NOT comparing fresh to canned and frozen counterparts, the comparison is with processed and prepared that come in frozen or canned form). I’ve found this to be true in LA, in Chicago, in New York City, North Carolina, Seattle, Paris, Taipei, even in the middle of nowhere in the Amazonian jungle. Recent USDA study comparing cost of fresh produce to “junk” food corroborates my experiences.
Watch “poor” immigrants shop at grocery stores. They don’t shop at QFC or Whole Foods or PCC. These stores don’t sell produce, they sell a brand, a social identity. That’s why these stores are increasingly located in neighborhoods insecure about their middle class identity. “Poor” immigrants shop at ghetto looking places with crammed spaces, a mess all around. When they purchase produce, they’re buying a meal they’ll produce from scratch, they’re not thinking about conforming to mainstream American expectations of identity. They don’t have time to think about fitting into the American ideal, they’re just trying to feed their family as cheaply as possible and the best way to do that is to cook from scratch. Not always the ideal produce that you get from farmer’s market, but it’s produce that’s not processed. They’re not interested in purchasing a brand — that’s for highly educated immigrants trying to fit in to American culture — they only care about making a satisfying meal that will feed an extended family of 8, 10, 12, however many they can pack into their living space. They eat well, better than do most middle-class Americans.
This isn’t philosophy class, so let’s not get sucked into discussion about the numerous logical flaws and inconsistencies in the Cracked article. I just want to point out that great cuisine is most often created by those we’d consider “poor.” No Le Creuset oven pots, no Viking stove, no Vitamix. No electricity, no reliable running water. No grocery stores and certainly no food stamps. Who came up with chicken pate and pork rillet? European peasants. Sashimi? Japanese fishermen. Escargot, Southern bbq, steak tartare, chop suey…all invented by people who’d be considered materially and economically poor by Cracked author.
One of the greatest (post) modern chefs, Marco Pierre White, grew up “poor.” So poor that before he was a teenager, he was hunting and scavenging for his food. That’s how he learned to cook. Scarcity, not abundance, forced him to be creative, to work for survival which later on, inspired his art. White was never poor in spirit. And that’s the way many so-called “poor” people used to be like in the US. Old-timers have told me about eating the possums and squirrels they caught as children. Foraging for berries and dandelion. Figuring out how to make the toughest cuts taste good and tender. They knew food, intimately. “Poor” folks can eat very well. It’s those with “poverty mindset,” from any income group, who don’t eat well.
Being “poor” or living in “poverty” is an attitude, a mindset, not an economic condition. It has nothing to do with how much money one has. Someone with poverty mindset may only be able to get a candy bar out of a dollar. Another person may be able to make a feast of stone soup, enough to feed 10, out of same amount. There’s no limit to what the human mind can create. The possibilities are endless. There’s no such thing as a “living wage.” We don’t know what someone can do with a square foot of living space. We don’t know how many meals someone can make out of a dollar. By insisting there’s such a thing as a “living wage” and a “poverty line,” we’ve given a lot of people an excuse to be envious, miserable, wasteful, and passive instead of grateful, optimistic, frugal, and creative.
This isn’t hippie or hipster nostalgia. I’m trying to not romanticize the past, I’m not saying European peasants had it better than today’s “underclass.” I really don’t know who had it better, if 17th century European peasants were better able to deal with what we consider frequent loss and random acts of violence. I’m just saying that there’s something destructive, almost sinister, about inventing poor people and then telling them that they’re poor because they have few, if any chances, to increase their economic worth because their “poverty” will result in poor habits that will keep them from making enough money to break their habits. If we want to beat this obesity epidemic, we can’t give people a reason to accept the status quo, to think that they can’t do anything to improve their lives. Obesity isn’t an issue of resources, it’s about making sure we don’t live in a “culture of poverty.”