What Growing Up Poor Can Teach Us About Bridging the Class Divide

Photo by Unsplash/Alexa Mazzarello
Photo by Unsplash/Alexa Mazzarello

Tracy Moore is intimately familiar with the realities of poverty and privilege. Growing up in a working-class family, Moore’s childhood was defined (to a large extent) by what she lacked—financial security and social mobility. Now a columnist for Jezebel.com and the author of Oops: How to Rock the Mother of All Surprises: A Positive Guide to Your Unexpected Pregnancy, she lives a middle-class life with her husband and daughter in Los Angeles. But the struggles of her childhood permeate through her writing, a permanent reminder that improved financial circumstances do not erase the memories of a difficult past.

Discussing wealth and poverty as financial realities that need to be considered in tandem, Moore’s writing advocates turning away from the bootstrapping mentality that is so prevalent in American culture and focusing instead on how we can connect with others across the class divide. In order to do so, she explains, we have to consider the circumstances of their lives, and understand that lifestyles (whether they are consumerist, minimalist or everything in between) are as complex as the people living them.

 

AWT: You’ve written very poignantly about growing up in a low-income family and struggling with your sense of identity as a (now) middle-class adult. What are some of the long-term effects of the struggles you faced during your childhood?

Tracy Moore: It’s so many things. I often feel like an impostor in the middle class, but I no longer fit in the class in which I was raised, so there’s a kind of socioeconomic outsider status inherent in my existence. I have a heightened fear of being poor again, which is really an internalization of the idea that poor folks are poor by their own fault and it can all go to pot in a heartbeat. When I read about the fact that some 70 percent of people born poor stay that way, I feel like some kind of exception to the rule and wonder: How was I able to transcend this when others weren’t? I also have a kind of preoccupation with the way we value things, particularly what others consider “nice” or “fancy,” because these are almost always thought of as subjective but are typically about class. In social situations, people assume that because I blog for a site like Jezebel (read: East Coast/liberal/feminist) that I went to good schools or have traveled the world, and neither is true. And I’m pretty sensitive to any expressed disdain toward the poor that assumes they are poor because they did it to themselves.

AWT: Referring to someone as “poor” seems jarring or even insulting, but you embrace the word and use it to great effect—it’s even part of your Twitter handle (@iusedtobepoor). Do you think that reclaiming the term “poor” allows us to have conversations about class and poverty that might otherwise be overlooked?

Tracy Moore: I think poor sounds like what it is—a state of deprivation—and I think words should sound like what they mean. The discomfort people may feel hearing that word is ultimately a good thing. People really do fundamentally misunderstand the cycle of poverty and how hard it is to transcend. And even when you do transcend it, you’re never out of the woods completely. Experiencing poverty while young is said to cast a long shadow—the mortality rate for adults who get out of poverty is still higher, even when they become more affluent, and that is said to last through two generations.

Low-income sounds unfortunate, but it doesn’t quite illustrate what poor is: Poor is quite literally not having enough. It’s not eating nutritiously. It’s not going to the dentist until you’re 13. It’s never going to a primary care physician because you don’t have insurance, but using the ER or walk-in clinics for more acute symptoms that should’ve been addressed months ago. It also comes with a great stigma. In school, teachers expect less from poor kids with uninvolved parents. So they focus less on them and are more likely to overlook them as high achievers or candidates for a gifted program. You miss out on the very resources you need the most. That’s what poor is.

AWT: You’ve also written about the trendy turn towards minimalism in recent years and how that turn, while positive in its critique of consumerism, doesn’t acknowledge the implied privilege of being able to live with less. Can you elaborate on this?

Tracy Moore: I think minimalism is great and I’m a fan. Less stuff is great. What proponents of minimalism often sound really tone deaf about is the fact that for people with nothing or very little, this is often a less seductive idea, an insulting expectation, or an outright impossibility, because minimalism so often means, “Just have fewer nice things, but the things should still be nice.” Many poor people are already involuntary minimalists. They already have very little, or very little of value, in the first place. Suggestions to sell what you’ve got are wonderful if you’re sitting on a few rare books, a nice piece of art, expensive tools, vintage concert T-shirts, etc. But for most of my life, for instance, I’ve had virtually nothing to get rid of, which is why I pawned the title to my car repeatedly in college—it was the only thing of any value I had to hawk. That’s not minimalist, it’s getting by, and it wouldn’t fit in any magazine spread. Ok, maybe a punk zine.

Add to this that having even a few things of value often makes you vulnerable to judgment when you’re poor, like the woman Darlene Cunha, who wrote about the vitriol she experienced when she and her husband kept their Mercedes even as they turned to food stamps during the housing crisis. This is incomprehensible to many people. But the minimalist lifestyle would suggest you trade that car in for a nice, exorbitantly priced Fixie or some other eco-friendly solution that is more about positioning yourself as this consumer of less by choice. But for someone with nothing to part with, that’s simply crazy talk.

Contrary to what a lot of minimalists promote, it still takes money to strip bare in favor of a magazine friendly minimalism that often tends to be about curating a lifestyle the way you might order a museum exhibit—I picture a glowing expensive desktop Mac on a vintage reclaimed wood desk with a single pop of color from an obscure painting on the wall. There’s a single nice leather laptop satchel in the corner and other untold expenses presented in a streamlined serenity. It’s just beyond possible for most people. There also needs to be a kind of psychological health present to ditch the sort of things that make you feel connected or comfortable or entertained, the few symbols of a better life you’ve managed to get, like internet or cable TV, while you wrestle with depression, alcoholism, and the stress and poor health that often coexist with poverty.

AWT: Are there ways that we can use the principles of a minimalist lifestyle (as advocated by bloggers like Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus) in ways that are sensitive to the economic disparities our culture faces?

Tracy Moore: Sure, I think if nothing else we’ve learned from television that anyone can be a hoarder of too many things, whether those things are of value or not. I think what poor people need are resources, many of which would no doubt simplify their existence. At the backbone of minimalism, at least in ideology if not practice, is a kind of work/home ethic typically used by the poor, which is the repurposing of things, not throwing away what works perfectly fine and not being ashamed to work the earth, grow your own food, fix your own car and mend your own clothes. But again, I have to point out that this is not how minimalism is ever sold—it’s almost always depicted as affluent, expensive and spare, not functional and down-to-earth and showing the wear of use.

AWT: Do you see gender as playing a part in how minimalist lifestyles are discussed in the media?

Tracy Moore: I think it’s just marketed differently by gender. Women’s magazines have long been proponents of the kind of consumer-friendly minimalism we’ve discussed here. Get rid of your stuff! Because there’s all this new stuff you could buy instead that will really streamline your aesthetic! But men are getting sold minimalism too, in the form of a kind of retro masculinity/lumberjack/artisan ethos that feeds their idea of usefulness—make your own craft beer, chop the wood, fix the car. Whereas the female version seems to be more about organization and a kind of spare beauty—sell everything to fit all your belongings in one elegant backpack for that round-the-world trip to Bali.

AWT: A Women’s Thing is especially invested in New York City communities and the women who shape them. Any advice on how we can have more productive conversations about poverty and privilege with our friends and neighbors?

Tracy Moore: I feel lucky that I’ve been able to have some kind of mobility and experience multiple class rungs. I’ve lived on food stamps and can now buy $5 sticks of grass-fed Irish butter (I do so guiltily). What I’ve noticed is that there are nice and terrible people in every bracket, but that there’s a kind of entitlement to choice that comes with money alone, and it seems to increase exponentially as income goes up. The more affluent people I know feel they deserve more for their money, whereas the poor people I know tend to not question things and assume that prices are prices, and they don’t want to cause trouble or bother anyone to ask for more. More affluent people seem much more comfortable negotiating, haggling and advocating for the best possible deal for themselves. In other words, they know the value of a dollar.

I say this because if you’re lucky enough to be affluent, I think it’s important to get outside of your socioeconomic bubble and understand that your choices are not the same as others, to really scrutinize the assumptions you have about those less fortunate than you. Spend time in diverse settings where you can develop more compassion—donations and drives are great ways to see where communities are lacking and how you can help with things you probably don’t even think are all that valuable. Talk about money with your children. Tip exceptionally well, pay anyone who provides a service to you a decent wage and inquire genuinely about their lives with curiosity and compassion. Advocate for them. Encourage your children to invite friends over from different backgrounds, teach them respect, and never assume what someone else can or can’t afford or what their background says about them.

This interview originally appeared in the Minimalism issue. Read part 1, The Privilege of Choosing Less: Interview with Jana Kasperkevic, or find more inspiring stories from the Minimalism issue here.

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