American perceptions of poverty in the 21st century: An uncomfortable view of inequality

I have been thinking about American perceptions of poverty.

We value poverty and we despise it

We watch movies about the poor at Christmas, and the Christmas story is based on a poor family whose child was born in a barn. We watch, we listen, we sigh, and we go out and spend spend spend to give our families a little bit of materialism for Christmas. I think many of us have overdone and overspent, feeling regret after the event, although maybe not of this magnitude.

Perceptions of poverty are complicated

We look at the families who make do with less-either Americans from long ago or those who struggle to feed their families in many parts of today’s world. We think them noble and wonderful. However, when we are broke, yuck we feel terrible! Like we are not fully citizens if we cannot go out and shop.

Middle class family grocery shopping-Perceptions of Poverty
Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

We judge those who struggle to make ends meet in this country-they must be lazy, or stupid, or addicted, or lacking morals, or all of the above. We are bombarded with advertisements about all the cool and wonderful stuff that will make us better people if only we buy it. Then we get mad at the poor for wanting it and buying it. They are being irresponsible with their money. Unlike the middle class Americans who live comfortable lifestyles but have credit card and mortgage debt and are just a few paychecks away from devastation.

Poverty tourism

Americans like to spend thousands of dollars to visit countries where poor people live. This is often a life changing experience that causes them to reconsider their relationship with money and stuff. However, the irony of spending the money to have the trip often seems lost. Also, I rarely hear about people having the same life changing experiences when they drive through poor neighborhoods near their homes.

We want to teach our children the value of thrift and frugality, but then we get iPhones for our 13 year old children. In the letter, the mom writes: “You are a good and responsible 13-year-old boy and you deserve this gift.” While I think the sentiment is normal, I caution parents to think about tying deservedness to iPhones and other gadgets and gizmos. We should be careful not to wrap a person’s worth in the stuff we can give. Do the poor lack material goods because they do not deserve them? When a kid is a struggling 20 something, are they more likely to put those goodies on the credit cards they can’t afford because they “deserve it?”

I think that the idea that we should buy stuff because we deserve it is a common one in our society, and one that advertisers feed into consistently. But we are also constantly hearing about the fiscal cliff, the crappy economy, and the environmental and human rights abuses that go hand in with modern consumption.

Maybe this dichotomy contributes to the high percentages of mental health issues in our country. We have all these conflicting messages and no way to sort them out properly. I know that, for me, the conflicting messages are sometimes at the heart of my bad money decisions, and I plan to try to unearth them when I am about to slip away from my financial goals. Hopefully this will help me stay on the frugal path.


I documented my first steps towards climbing out of debt here.

Click here to have a look at the challenges of setting up a budget and trying to climb out of poverty.