Poverty and Pleasure

[Shani O. Hilton]

Jamelle Bouie writes about a Philadelphia Inquirer report on the growth of cell phone ownership among the poor:

For people who are instinctively rankled by the sight of a poor person with a cell phone, I think simple ignorance is the culprit. In this world of iPhones and pocket-sized computers, it's easy to forget that with less than $100, you can buy a fairly reliable phone and minutes for the month.

That said, if you fear "subsidizing texting and sexting among the poor," your problem isn't ignorance—or at least not that kind of ignorance—your problem is that you hold a pretty ugly view of the poor and poverty. For these conservatives, poverty is purely the result of individual behavior; if you are poor, you have obviously done something to deserve it, "Of course poor people would use phone-handouts for texting and sexting, they wouldn't be poor if they didn't have degenerate habits like communication, or sexual expression." To repeat, cell phones are not a luxury. But even if they were, there's nothing about poverty that disentitles you to enjoying your life. If you are one of the few people who don't need a cell phone, but get one because it would improve your quality of life, that doesn't make you any less "deserving" of help than someone who chooses to go without. This idea that we should control the pleasure of those on the bottom is both baffling and pretty offensive.

If I have one quibble with Jamelle's post, it's the title. Poor-bashing isn't a new pastime in the U.S.

To be honest, in my middle-class youth, I'm sure I engaged in some poor-bashing. It wasn't until I was older and grew to understand that it's more expensive to be poor that the prevalence of blaming the poor became clear to me. I had to have it pointed out to me that a poor family with a large TV and cable wasn't a sign of some moral failing—it was more likely a sign that there probably weren't many safe out-of-doors pastimes available in the neighborhood. And the idea that poor people don't deserve pleasure and little luxuries—and as Jamelle points out, cell phones aren't a luxury, they're a necessity—is pretty sickening.