Last week, the Washington Post ran an article with the provocative title, Rental America: Why the Poor Pay $4150 for a $1500 Sofa. Reaction on social media among my friends who have shared it has been… interesting.
What has shocked me most is the utter lack of empathy people have shown toward the woman in particular and people who are economically poor in general.
I swear, if one more person talks about how ‘When I was poor, during grad school, I bought my couch on Craigslist for $70”, I might just snap. Being poor, by definition, means your options are limited. Poverty is, more than anything, about lack of choices.
Yes, I know that you can go on craigslist and find a couch for $50, as I saw someone on Facebook mention. But that assumes that a) you have access to a computer connected to the internet b) know how to use a computer c) know how to use the internet d) have a phone to call the number on craigslist, and further, that you control the number, so when you leave a message for them to call you back, they get you and not the person who’s phone you borrowed and e) have a means of going to look at the couch and f) getting the couch from their house to your house. Oh, and g) have the time to go do that.
If you are keeping track at home, that is seven things that have to be going your way before you can “get a couch on craigslist.” Lose any of those seven and no couch for you. Meanwhile, you can walk into any rental store in the country, hand over that same $50 and have a brand new couch that you picked out and is exactly the colors you want, in your living room, before dark.
That is pretty much a no-brainer. Especially if it means you get to feel normal for a few hours.
Did you catch that last sentence? The ability to feel normal, to fit in, to be like everyone else is something poor people rarely get to feel.
In our culture, “normal’ people don’t buy used furniture. The culture tells us, via countless ads, the TV shows we watch, the things our friends share on Facebook and the messages our politicians tell us (go stimulate the economy!) that the way to be a good citizen is to buy things that are like the things everyone else has.
Poverty is stigmatized by our society. Being poor and standing out is almost the unpardonable sin. When you are poor, you want to blend in, to fade away. Countless memories of being teased in school because you had the wrong clothes or showing up underdressed for events have taught you that no good at all comes from standing out. So, you try really hard to fit in, to be like everyone else.
When being normal (based on what you see around you) involves having portable electronics, smart phones, and a car, asking people to delay all of that so they can meet your idea of what is prudent is, perhaps, unrealistic. Especially when entire industries exist to cater to your desire to fit in. And especially since one on three of us are obese, so obviously self-control is not our strongest suit as a nation.
So, yes, you can buy a new couch for $70 a week. Or a new big-screen TV for $40 a week. And when you have spent all day doing back-breaking, mind-numbing physical labor, coming home and smoking a cigarette while seated on your comfortable couch and watching a fantasy unfold on the bigscreen TV so you can, just for a few minutes, forget how unbearably exhausting your own life is isn’t only understandable, but probably the sanest possible response you are capable of mustering.