Luxury as Gatekeeper

by William Schuth in


Over the weekend, Talking Points Memo published "Why Do Poor People 'Waste' Money on Luxury Goods?," a fantastic meditation on the invisible power of consumer products over the upward mobility of poor folks:

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It's the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain't fair. 


The author, Tressie McMillan Cottom, considers the way her mother, though as poor as her neighbors, would dress up in clothes which signaled to others – white folks in educational and social service bureaucracies – her respectability, clothes which helped her navigate those bureaucracies and gain advantages or resolve problems for herself and her neighbors. Cottom considers the casual discrimination the working poor often face when trying to climb above their current status, all the while wearing clothes or driving cars that declare their working poverty. Luxury goods, Cottom suggests, are about much more than luxury, unless the term simply describes the luxury of not being considered poor, or worse, poor and profligate.

Recommended reading.