The Logic of Stupid Poor People

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 12.11.13 PMTo be fair, this isn’t about Eroll Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?

One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That’s how generational wealth happens where I’m from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.

We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk’s once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is  you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

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.

In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left my VP turned to me and said, “did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black.

The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand new BMW because she, “should treat herself” and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business. Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? That candidate maybe could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

157 thoughts on “The Logic of Stupid Poor People

  1. My JESUS!! tressiemc this is so on point, so insightful, so personal and poignant that I am moved. I have just related to a very good acquaintance that when I show up on a sales call, I know that 99.9999% of the execs, their admins, their gatekeepers will be white and there is a shift, a dance in which I am adept: 6’2″, Black, 198 lbs I see the relaxation when I speak as well as I do and smile as brightly as I do. That 1st boundary had been surmounted, “He’s not the Negro I saw on Fox News last night” When other challenges come I’ve let go of wondering how much of it it based on my ethnicity and how much on a general scepticism towards the sales profession. I say I am creating a space in which you can solve your problems, meet your challenges, hit your targets with what I bring. Some step into that space others will not.

    That 1st boundary is sometimes manifested by a stone face, a surprise-born-of-fear face, or by clearly stated hostility which, to me, underscores, “We didn’t expect (somebody like) YOU to show up.

    Buying a crazy expensive belt or jacket, or suit, or pair of shoes while being poor, economically out of it – I’ve done it. it was a calculated gamble. I am not blind. I knew that If I had enough components of “the uniform” of the industry into which I sought entree, then my chances were better if only on the margin.

    Yes, my book is OFTEN judged by the cover so it makes sense to polish up the cover, no? Don;t ridicule me/poor Black folks for risking to invest-qua-invest in the polish and polishing rag to do so.

    Keep on keepin’ on tressiemc

    1. But don’t you feel bad about taking anything from the tax payer? veteran benefits aside, why should the government help a grandmother care for her grand daughter? The tax payer did not get that girl’s mom pregnant. Its offensive. Especially as taxes go up and up, and we are expected to provide everything for everyone.

  2. Tressie,

    I want to lift every word and quote it on my Facebook page with a link to this piece. Every. single. word is the complete, unadulterated truth. Your words hearken me back to a couple of classes I took while in grad school on race and poverty…especially rural poverty. One of the readings we had to do discussed how we think the poor are underserving and are the underclass. We think the poor are undeserving of the same “luxuries” and other items for survival – yet, we (especially those who are just one leg up from being “poor”) believe *we* are deserving of those things. You’re right about the fact that all of these things boil down to exclusivity and belonging and I really wish that those same people you mentioned who are either wealthy, barely middle class, and newly not-poor could remember or be mindful of just how expensive it is to live in poverty…on all fronts: both socially and financially. Thank for this. Your words are EVERYTHING.

  3. You wow me with almost every post, Tressie–thank you so much for sharing your voice! I honestly did just print five copies of this, pasted, reformatted to fit on little folding sheets, and very clearly cited as yours.

    The next five mouthy bigots in checkout lines near me (or any similar venues) will get their own personal copies, given out for free by this very appreciative white lady. If even one stops to think for ten seconds, it’ll be well worth the ink.


  4. As a young, poor white man, I’ve known there was something behind the concept of ‘white privilege’ for a while now. Someone once explained it as the settings of a videogame, and what sex and what race you are born at directly affect the difficulty setting. That convinced me that it exists and in general how it works.

    You, though. . . you provide accurate explanations for the societal mechanisms that make up that concept. You pierce through the simplicity of that metaphor and instead show the real-life situations, not analogies. Very helpful, and eye-opening. Thank you for sharing such an intimate picture of what the world looks like from your point of view. The honesty is what makes it ring true. I only hope more people are willing to look at the world through this lens you have shared.

    1. Hi Ryan
      The “someone” you refer to is John Scalzi, and his (also excellent) blog is called Whatever.

  5. To be fair to E. Louis, I SMH at ANYONE who spends $2500 on a purse. If rich people didn’t feel the need to show their wealth, then the rest of us could relax! But THAT day is never coming!!

    1. The problem with the $2500 purse is that it is excessive even in terms of middle class posturing. You can spend a lot less and generate the same “desired” effect. Past a certain point, posing stops looking respectable and just looks ridiculous. That may become it’s own problem.

      1. I was thinking this, too, but then it occurred to me that being able to determine exactly where that line is (the line between looking comfortably professional and looking like a poor person trying to fake their status by flaunting an exorbitantly expensive bauble) is itself a matter of privilege. You might have to be “in the club” to be able to perceive the subtle messages various clothing/accessory choices, combined with the rest of your presentation, can send. Or at least you’d have to have studied “the club” from the outside with an unusually perceptive eye.

  6. Um, YES! This, this, this! I thank God for people who can articulate these things with alacrity what would take me books and years to put into words.

  7. Sweet baby deity, preach, you fantastic being! I loved every second of this. In just a few paragraphs you really broke it down. Anybody who’s outside of the accepted class has to make strategic decisions about how they present every day, but you elegantly laid out how much more that is the case the more you are outside of that idea. The feeling of barely getting away with your presentation by the skin of your teeth is something that many people don’t understand.

  8. I so much enjoyed reading this essay written so beautifully in lucid English prose. Speaking the ‘Queen’s English’ is one particular skill but writing it with such elegance is another skill altogether. I am from a poor white English family and I have indeed found myself saying similar things about the extravagance of other poor whites. Your essay gave me a different perspective on why people do the things they do. I was brought up to be respectable and talk in the appropriate manner. The Welfare State was established when I was ten years old and I was able to benefit from it. There is now a retreat from universal provision of free education which makes me very angry. I will take your advice and keep on keepin’ on.

  9. This is brilliant and thoughtful and timely. You made me think and feel. I am white and prosperous, but there is a parallel situation that helps me feel this much larger injustice, which is that I have been at various times significantly overweight. This makes me an undesirable non-customer in certain clothing boutiques. The prejudice the sales people have against larger bodies is apparently a bigger force than any ambition for commissions on sales. Last year after I had lost 75 pounds, I went into the store where I had promised myself a great new outfit when I had reached a certain weight. I stood around, looked at things on the rack that I knew I could wear at long last, stood around — and in a nearly empty, small shop, was ignored for some 20 minutes. Of course I could have demanded attention, of course I could have requested information, a dressing room, all that. But the way this felt — it was humiliating. Shaming. I left in tears, money in my wallet.

    1. Kat, that’s atrocious. Is it a national chain? Have you thought about writing its CEO? No one should ever feel the way you were made to feel there.

  10. And had the cosmetology school applicant purchased that silk shell, everyone who saw her do it would have been thinking there went another welfare cheat wasting honest taxpayers’ money.

    The fact is simply that if you’re poor you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, because the not-poor are so terrified because there but for the grace of whatever they hold responsible for their exalted status go they.

  11. I think this article is well thought out. However I think in its momentum focusing on dressing for “Gatekeepers” it misses a very important point and the apparent core of E. Louis’ comment. The majority of the superfluous spending of impoverished people is not a matter of “getting in the door for a better job”, or anything long term like that, that would actually help end their poverty. These “status symbols” are symbols used to evoke in themselves and others the sense that they are in fact “above” those who truly couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come to own these accoutrements under ANY circumstances. It is bravado, not for the sake of perception that would lead to doors being opened, but for the sake of stroking one’s ego and gaining status in a very specific culture that IS NOT the domain of the particular gatekeepers described in this article. My point is exemplified in one major area: simply the clothes. Yes, the clothes that are marketed to and consumed by the “poor” (and i’m really talking about non-white cultures here) are priced with the intent of making their purchase a symbol of wealth. However they ARE NOT designed that the “white privileged” would recognize their wearers as ones for whom to “open the gate”. Very different garb.

    My point is that we should be cautious walking away from this article saying that the Gucci, Nike, Timberland, $70 fitteds and $150 throwbacks are “necessary to help open the otherwise locked gates of privileged society”. They are clearly not even supposed to be and I argue that these consumers are not in the least concerned (truly) with gaining access to that realm. This spending is to a similar, even parallell end of “status”. But ultimately they’re playing a whole ‘nother ball game.

    1. This was a wonderful article and I also enjoyed but absolutely agree with you. These status symbols should not be confused with those that people looking to move up purchase, a $2500 handbag is as different from a $50 briefcase as a $3 tank is from a $20 shell. If you are savvy enough to buy items in an attempt to improve your situation, you are savvy enough to find cost effective ways of acquiring them. I have worked with people who spend countless amounts on status symbols with no intent of using them to improve their status in the company we work for, that is not wrong, it just is what it is…Thank you for saying it.

  12. Your well written article fails because it uses the typical cop out of “if you aren’t a member of XYZ group you cannot know or be correct.”

  13. When did it become, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their swag.”?

  14. Most poor in America are poor because of they lack the discipline of hard work not because they lack the opportunity to move up in society. LoL, silly American.

    1. I am a 64 year old black man, and yes, I’m a Southerner. I have read some very interesting as well as entertaining stuff here. But the main theme here is JUDGEMENT. What if I were to inform you that, we have all missed the truth about who is, or who is’nt poor? Can you believe that out of all I have read here, no one that wrote a reply about the American concept of poor has even come close to the beauty of what being poor truly is. To busy swagging America. He’ coming.

  15. (Please pardon the ridiculous Twitter name. It’s a silly video game joke for Halloween…)

    This is absolutely brilliant and rings so true. I’ve gone kind of the opposite way — I’m a white girl from the deep South, was raised pretty comfortably middle class. The bottom fell out of the economy right after I graduated college (thankfully without loans or I’d be even worse off) and five years later I still haven’t gotten a career started, or even had a job more than about nine months. I’m living off savings that are gonna run out in a few months and I might have to move back in with my parents, several states away, who aren’t doing that well either and really can’t afford to be supporting me at almost-thirty. I’m having trouble learning to pare down expenses — what I can treat myself to, what I can’t, what I should. I can’t make myself buy nice name-brand clothes or get a haircut and color, but I’ll drop 20 or 30 bucks on wings and beer without thinking about it.

    I’m applying your explained not-poor logic to my now-decidedly-poor self. But, again, as an educated young white woman in the South, I don’t HAVE to invest so much to present that image. I’m in a hole for sure, and it’s a bit deeper hole than it’d be if I was a man, but it’s also not nearly the hole a non-white person (with my exact same background, even) would be in. Privilege is a complex thing.

  16. Thank you for communicating this so beautifully. I was raised “po white trash” was a rebellious punk rock teen and learned early on how what I wore and how I spoke affected how people treated me. My early teen years were filled with deep painful yearnings for the items that conferred social acceptance. Some people will never understand that feeling.

    I want to share this with all people of color. I’m a white lady. I live in a city, sometimes I ride a bike, sometimes I take transit and I don’t consistently dress-for-success, instead I dress for riding my bike 4 miles comfortably. If I’m not well dressed suspicious sales clerks will follow me doggedly and give me the stink eye and bad service, too and it happens often! I got “can I help you-ed” out of the Ralph Lauren flagship store when I went in less than spiffy clothes. Often when in comfy threads I get mistaken for sales help, at the mall, grocery store, drug store. I’ve had clerks of all stripes look down their noses at me, even when I was well put together. Heck, the other day a fellow customer (an Asian lady) at the Lucky Brand store gave me ugly attitude and flat out said she didn’t “want anything to do with people like” me.

    So don’t think it is all about racism, class-ism plays a role, too. Don’t overlook the one thing that isn’t an ism, some people are just assholes and retail is full of them.

    1. Thank you. I could wear haute couture and still look like a hillbilly. I made the choice to take a low-expense job. My workday is spent in fifty-cent garage sale Ts and dollar pants. I have to choke down giggles when sales help or others discover that I do speak standard American accented English with decent grammar and have an IQ above 50. For POC, though, it’s an ongoing nightmare with no morning in sight.

  17. Thank you for teaching me never to make those kinds of judgmental comments (like Eroll Louis’s) again. I had no clue. Thank you for exposing the raw stuff of your life to show me my privilege. So glad to read your work out there.

  18. Sent here from a link on John Scalzi’s blog. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I hadn’t thought about how big a difference there is between “presentable” and “really taken seriously”. Well written and thank you.

  19. Incredible piece. Thank you for writing it. Saving it to reference for every time someone on my newsfeed doesn’t seem to get it. Or, y’know, just generally acts like a bigot.

  20. Good article. Appearances matter, no doubt, and it’s a standard rule of interviewing (and being promoted) that you must dress for the job you want, not the one you have. This is why charities like Career Gear ( exist.

    But it’s also worth noting, I think, that this is EXACTLY the same logic used when women get blamed for a rape; because whether it’s ‘fair’ or not, how you present yourself determines how people treat you… in a boardroom or a bar.

    1. Women get raped because men want sex, and get blamed because men don’t want responsibility. Women look like they present themselves well if they look like they have husbands or fathers who will blow the attackers heads off with an automatic weapon, or if perhaps the women are married to men who are perceived as respectable. It has nothing to do with what the women do or want because men who want sex aren’t interested in what women think. Young women get raped because they are perceived as hot and juicy. Should they stop being young so that perception will stop?

  21. This is a hard one. As someone who grew up destitute in a way that most american poor haven’t (i LITERALLY starved half my teen years, as in ate rice and was both malnourished AND underweight not due to choice) I still can’t spend more than $200 on any one item. Even when I was making $160 grand a year. Even $200 seems excessive to me right now (at way less than that now that I’m divorced, and then I used to feel guilty at over $50) with the exception of an entire outfit I’m having custom tailored.. Let that sink in. I’m having a floor to neck outfit made for $200 from a local seamstress (fabric and notions add another $100). Why do we humans seem to think that a label or a name of an item infers well anything other than “i have money” Why is “I have money” anything that should show the value of a person? For me, ok, you get the item/outfit, etc to “fit in” or in a lot of cases to “feel superior.” And sometimes to open up opportunities. But maybe we should be addressing why a bag that is going to fall apart with repeated use but caries a silly name and a hefty price tag is what is giving us an opportunity. Maybe we should be breaking down the classism a bit when those of us who have the opportunities are in the place of sharing them with others instead. Maybe there is something missing in me that I feel that that is the last thing I want to prove to the people around me?

  22. I teach at a prep school now but definitely did not grow up in a family that had access to this kind of education (I’m white). One day when meeting me here to go to dinner, my mother said to me, “I’ve been watching everyone come in and out of this building, and I was so happy when you came out in a cute outfit–you really looked like you belong here!”

  23. I so appreciate how candidly you share your experiences. This IS a great read, as long as one’s mind does not clamp shut at the first mention of why it might be necessary to ‘look like’ one fits into a certain ‘mold’ so to speak. Changing one’s outer appearance to obtain a goal does not change the person’s personality from within. I would also agree that K mart apparel cannot make one presentable without the outfit screaming,”I got this at K mart”. There are, however consignment stores where designer items can be had at far more frugal cost. I am now 45 years old. I have spent the last five years crafting my wardrobe in this way. I own significantly fewer pieces, but they all work together. It’s too bad that, in our ‘consumer’ society, it took me 20 years of my adulthood to figure this out.

  24. tressie,

    I so appreciate this article. I grew up poor but dressed my way to success. It wasn’t just the way I dressed, it was the luck I had and the people who helped me but all of that was magnified by my sporting the right symbols that trigger the notion that someone is one of the privileged class or at least willing to go out of their way to pay tribute to it by going into debt to dress as if they are.

    My mother did the same. She wore shoes dyed to match her dresses, sewn at home from Vogue patterns. Costume jewelry, handbags, always something truly expensive looking (she called it dressing high-low). It made life easier for me in school that my parent showed up “properly” coiffed and dressed to the nines.

    In my case, it, in combination with a Japanese last name and light skin, opened doors that would have remained closed to me because of my lack of formal education. I taught myself speak the Queen’s English and left behind the pidgin and creole of my youth. Focused on key concepts and ideas that signaled middle class.

    I’m aghast at those who will spend $50,000 on a wedding – much of it for a dress they will wear for only a day – who complain of poor people spending in fashion beyond their apparent means. How is one debt different from the other except for the fact that one is a signal of wealth, now lost, and the other is a signal of the capacity for wealth hoped for?

    While folks just don’t get this stuff because the status symbol they wear is their skin, purchased at no cost but the suffering of others.

    Again, thanks…

    1. “How is one debt different from the other except for the fact that one is a signal of wealth, now lost, and the other is a signal of the capacity for wealth hoped for?”

      excellent point! And yes, what a thought provoking article. Thank you.

  25. i totally feel you bro, and i am a white man. my family of poors acquired wealth much as yours did – tiny pensions, disability, etc. we were well read and well educated, though, no fools in the bunch. just poor.

    had a job as a legal assistant in my 30’s. i made crappy money doing this, but thanks to the largesse of a friend, i had some very fine hand-me-down suits. i looked fabulous, but my pockets were empty. i was treated very respectfully whereever i went in my Armani power suits. i lived on ramen and eggs.

    then i got in the electrician’s union. made very good $ indeed! doing construction, though, i dressed like a dusty ragged hobo – that is the way of hard work. i was even mistaken for a bum a couple of times. and not treated very well at the store or the gas station.

    white people get this kind of disrespect too, based on appearance. not to the extent that blacks do, of course, but Bro, I Feel You!

  26. This was a beautiful article with deep truth in it. When my wife was supporting both of us by working at a fast food place, we scrimped and saved up the money to buy a nice suit for me to wear to job interviews. After six months of searching, it was the second interview I wore the suit to where I was offered a job. The person holding the interview even commented on how nice it was to have someone ‘dress up’ for the interview. I am convinced it played a serious factor in getting the job. If that is the reality for a white male, I am grateful to never have to deal with things on a more difficult level.

  27. Really excellent post… I’m a white woman who is pretty disgusted by some of the consumer choices my friends have made as they’ve aged and amassed some wealth. A $2,500 handbag is off-putting to me, no matter who buys it. So, I purposely stepped off that treadmill, and aggressively do not care about designer shoes/purses, big diamond engagement rings, etc. But… I have the privilege, as a well-educated white person, who speaks “the Queen’s English” to be able to do that. I can still be accepted into the “club” without those things (for the most part, anyways). I definitely enjoyed reading your perspective on this… very thought-provoking.

  28. So with your knowledge of the situation, your understanding of the position of the administrative assistant, could you not have done something to help? I understand you were not doing the hiring, but a word of understanding and explanation could go a long way. As we all come to understand the pitfalls we can hand out the map around them.

    1. I know exactly what they are and how they look. I can’t even put my finger on what makes them look like Jim Walter Homes except that they look like all other Jim Walter homes. It would be nice to have the money to buy one right now. I would not do it. I would have one built that had some personality in the appearance if I had such resources.

      I am a 55 year old jobless white female with a college art degree from Mississippi, and my family claims that nobody hires me because I do not present myself well. They claim that it is the truck I drive, and so forth, that turns off employers in my small town. I do not know how true that is, but I know that I wear the best clothes possible and park far away from the building when I go out of town to look for work and still come back with nothing. We’re talking about going places where nobody knows me in case you missed that. I have spent most of my adult life without a job. For about ten years I worked as a part time hotel maid while I went back to college part time to become a teacher. My teaching license is about to expire, and I still don’t have work. I do not have any insurance of any kind, no car, life, health, fire insurance whatsoever, because I cannot afford it. I do not know what the future holds for me. Right now I am taking care of my mother through funds from a pension she has, and I have access to my deceased husband’s Wal-Mart 401k money. When it’s gone, it will take wings and not come back. We think of people who are living on “old money” as being rich, but I am living that way, and I don’t think that many would call me rich by this world’s standards.

      I said all of that to say what I am about to. It may be viewed as a bit of folk wisdom which North Americans once had but is completely lost as the mass media of today has totally robbed us of much that was good in the past, as well as taking away the bad of course. The mass media wants to retrain everybody to their way of thinking which isn’t always right either. I am saying that I have not given up hope. That may not sound different from what you keep hearing, but what is different is where I place my hope. I find inspiration in these bible verses from Proverbs 11:24-26.

      24There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more,And there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want.25 The generous man will be prosperous, And he who waters will himself be watered. 26 He who withholds grain, the people will curse him, But blessing will be on the head of him who sells it.

      What I do that you may not have ever been taught is to spend my resources well while I have resources to spend and trust in the Lord to remember me in my time of need.

      I have a pastor who has been doing that for many years now. He is a kind hearted faithful very generous Christian man who never misses an opportunity to give and be faithful. His house caught on fire recently and his family lost everything except their lives and two cell phones. They even lost their transportation. Both the man and his wife lost the vehicles that they had to go to work with. They also had two teen aged boys who came out alive in that fire, but that is all they came out with.

      Sunday morning there was an offering taken to help this family. I glanced and noticed that there was about forty dollars collected on their behalf. He had to go on a missions conference Sunday night and decided to practice something that he always preached. He believes that believers are most blessed when they “plant seeds” (That means giving to missions.) So he took all of that offering which was all of the money he had and gave it at the missions conference. Before the day was over, someone had given him not one but two vehicles, and unknown to me I gave them a hundred dollar gift certificate to Dollar Tree because I had been thinking about all of the small things they would need and miss. (In case you don’t know what Dollar Tree is, everything in the store costs a dollar. They don’t get rich as Wal-mart, but they don’t do bad either.) They had been planning a trip to Dollar Tree but did not know how they would pay for it. I did not know that they wanted to go. I just gave because the Lord impressed me to give that.

      This is the kind of living that I want to use for insurance. I find assurance in the thought that God sees me, and my day is coming. I don’t need Obamacare, You might, but I don’t want it. I am too rich for Obamacare.

  29. Your post has dramatically impacted my perspective regarding the logic of poor people, a perspective that I mistakenly (and probably arrogantly) thought was already nuanced and informed. Thank you.

  30. By the time I was 10 years old my parents were reminding me to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” They sent me to cotillion to learn manners and they enforced social courtesies stringently. This was social training that very overtly acknowledged the class mobility codes that you so eloquently articulate here. I think about that quite frequently when I am advising younger people who clearly have not received the same lessons in the home. What I had not considered, until I read this article, was that that training, while effective, might in itself be reinforcing my own class and race stereotypes. In coaching me how to be seen as a member of the tribe, I was implicitly learning how to identify those who were not members of the tribe. And that it was appropriate to judge them. Much to think about here, especially as I raise two white sons of my own. Can I teach them to navigate the existing social codes “correctly” without also inculcating classist and racist assumptions at the same time?

    1. I was moved by your comment, for many reasons. Personal growth amid raising young men is hard to do, mine is 18 and counting. Im glad you have been found food for thought. Its hard once you have other lives you are responsible for to come up with ALL the answer and “hope” they are correct. Mothers are a special kind of people. All women have the ability to have a child, but only some special women can become Mothers. Good Luck on your search.

      I found insight in this article for many reasons, way too many to mention here, but looking at it from both sides and putting the two together is where it lead me. Thank you for that. I look forward to reading more from you.

  31. There is class, and there are the trappings of class. Someone with the right trappings can “pass” even if they’re the wrong gender, color, or background. But it’s always about money and the training one receives in *how to use money.*

    I was raised by suburban whites with some college education, but they were first-generation suburban. They didn’t know how to dress or how to use money the way their new “peers” knew. Their poor roots showed. I myself have advanced degrees; I’m “through and out the other side” of the values my parents were born into. I wear what I like because I work a job where clothes don’t matter. People may assume I’m trash until I speak; then I speak with fifth-generation-high English, which throws them, and they adjust their assumptions about me: I must dress this way out of arrogance. Whatever.

    I often wonder what differences from mine exist in the education of the children of the very rich. Their “history of money” must be different from the one I learned. Their scale from “trashy merchandise” up through “merchandise worth owning” and on to “overpriced luxury merchandise” must differ from mine. How they save money differs from how I save money. Where they expect their income to grow and why.

    How were you taught to use money?

    How does that identify which class you come from?

  32. With the attainment for wealth and status, being apart of the “group”, comes many the inconvenient truth that being at the top/wealthy/upper class isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As you “move up the ladder” you are also being judged by your ideological discipline (ie. how well you can mold yourself to fulfill the ultimate interests of your corporation), and how well you force others to think likewise. If your ultimate goal in life is to amass wealth, then I suppose these are risks you are willing to take. But you also have to think about the “opportunity cost” of not worrying about it all… Some people don’t want to sell their souls for a “privileged” existence. One person’s intelligence is another’s idiocy.

  33. This was amazing. I grew up very poor. I didn’t have heat in my house, we sober months without running water and there were holes in our floor big enough I could have fallen through them. I’m not educated and managed to land a great job few years ago. I wore a Calvin Klein suit, had a French manicure (my first and only one) and I landed the job. Because of how I’ve been treated prior to dressing that way, I know the name brand helped me. I’ve had bosses tell me to dress for the job I want even if I can’t afford it. So much of this is true and until someone has been there, they won’t understand how hard it is to go from rags to riches. I’ve shmoozed and ended up getting a lot things I wouldn’t have gotten if I weren’t a pretty white girl wearing a nice outfit. I can tell countless stories of this being the case. I had to pretend I wasn’t poor to get these opportunities and to do that, I had to dress the part. One manager even told me I needed to buy a new car in order to succeed within the company even though I was a poor college student working my way through college.

    Some people won’t get it. I wish they did, but acknowledging privilege isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s much easier to assume anyone below you deserves it than to admit that any one of us could be in that situation had we been born into different circumstances.

    1. My background was similar to yours Kristin. My parents divorced before I reached my teen years and my mother got on welfare to support 3 children. Although we stayed in the house in the suburbs I didn’t have get designer clothes like the other black kids during my time. (I’m 49) I took my cues from my white friends who did have money that you didn’t buy high end designer clothes to look good. At that time my white friends refused to wear designer clothes, they were into Lee & Levi jeans, and clothes from stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister. It’s funny. When I think back to those times, the white kids would laugh at the black kids for coming to school dressed as if they were getting ready to walk in a fashion show. I started dressing differently when I got into fashion. I still didn’t dress in high end clothes but most of what I wore were things that I designed myself and had someone make for me. To this day I still don’t buy high end but people think I do.

  34. I cannot say how much this post means to me – thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections!

    I’ve had similar experiences as I’ve grown up, although by the time I was a teenager, the household financial situation had changed. Through university (and beyond!) I’ve met a lot of people who have incorrectly assumed my family is very well off, and it’s always been hard to explain to friends from richer backgrounds why I feel I need to buy the better than I can afford.

    I also remember when I was a student, making the choice between good, healthy food and smart, well-made clothes. I never starved, but I often sacrificed so that my public appearance was more dignified. My family always considered it a good thing that I have a very subtle regional accent – to them, speaking like they do on the BBC really does represent better opportunities in life.

    Although my family have social privilege as white people, many of my (great)grandparents were/are Irish, and public appearance was/is everything to them. Of my grandparents and great-grandparents, you can pick out the 2nd generation immigrants from the way they present themselves. (I think) they really believe that your appearance is a reflection of the respect you have for not just yourself, but your family too.

    (Wow. I’m sorry for the long comment! Thanks again for writing this. Definite follow.)

  35. This is a smart and perceptive article, and I learned a lot from it. But as a child of the maligned white “hippie”-types she describes, this all sounds a little — well, a little Southern. I agree with many of the author’s points, but after giving it some thought for a few days, something still nagged at me. The “rules” she describes are true particularly in the Deep South (which seems obsessed with the trappings of “appropriate” behavior and attire), and in the corporate world, which is obsessed with competition and status symbols. But that doesn’t make them the key that all Americans (or even all white Americans) use in judging each other. It makes them the key to corporate, materialistic success. I get it that beggars can’t be choosers, and poor people have a perfect right to fight for corporate jobs — but the author seems to imply that there’s no other route to success.

    The author talks about how an aging white hippie can cut his hair and slip into a Brooks Brothers suit, and there’s truth in that. Being a hippie implies a certain amount of privilege, in that you don’t have to combat a stereotype and can “afford” to look poor. But the aging white hippie is also the person who is most likely to hire the job candidate who is wearing a “tank top” instead of a “shell,” because he would neither notice or care. He’s not just “dressing down” as an ostentatious display of status, he’s doing it because he is legitimately trying to embrace a different set of values.

    Poor people have a right to try to buy their way into status, but do you really want to take the mentality of Duke sorority girls and say that the sooner poor people learn to think like that, the better? Doesn’t that just create more “gatekeepers” instead of opening the gates?

    1. Loved the article and your reply (and the many thoughtful comments in general, actually.) “I am”* a 40 yo white man. I was raised upper middle class in one of the wealthiest towns in the US (and therefore the world.) Growing up I saw tons of people obsessed with status symbols – and they could afford them. Tons of futile attempts to buy happiness. Tons of groundless entitlement attitude, materialism, elitism, etc. I’ve never fit any category like “hippie” but I always consciously rejected all that stuff and refused to play that game, but because I thought and think it’s nauseatingly shallow, and again, existentially futile. I rejected opportunities I thought were unfairly presented to me by accident of birth rather than my own effort, though not all of them – that would have been almost impossible. Now I live in another super wealthy community, making a high income, but still driving my dented 1993 honda accord among the swarming BMWs. But what I’ve been wondering lately is if that’s a noble battle, or just tilting at windmills. Viscerally I still want to rebel, but practically, I wonder if I’m cutting my nose to spite my face. This article describes a process I’ve always perceived, but attributed more to people, both rich and poor, trying to buy a sense of worth in their own eyes, more fundamentally than in those of others. I suppose both motives – the internal/psychological and external/practical, are equally prevalent. Anyway for me, this article gave food for more thought, but not decisive clarity. One point it talked about – that VP who said “we are in the image business”, made me think, maybe I get way with my status0symbol rejection socially is because I am, or people perceive me as being, in the “I’m not in the image business” image business…? Or maybe I don’t get away with it and just don’t realize that…? I’ll contemplate that on my way back to the drawing board. Or maybe to the car dealership…?
      *in quotes because these superficial demographic blurbs in no way describe what any human being actually, existentially is.

  36. I’ve been paying more attention to how poor people are treated since the Occupy movement began. When the Occupy persons were discussed, my opinion was that they would be treated poorly and ignored because of how they looked. I’d said that if they showed up in suits and ties, and spoke articulately and elegantly, the movement would have a stronger impact because appearance means so much. It’s frightening how much it means.

    I used to think why did poor people buy things they couldn’t really afford, but then I realized how most people want nice things and a lot of people buy things they can’t afford, even on a $100K annual salary. People want to look good and feel good, and if having a designer bag or pair of shoes helps them do that, it’s none of my business. We all have to make our own choices.

  37. My friend, thank you for sharing such wealth and knowledge. System of privilege, power, and difference. Job well DONE! Thank you again for your wisdom.

  38. One reason Christians should not judge.

    C.S. Lewis ‘Mere Christianity’ page 86-87
    Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

    It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as friends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But god does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

  39. This was a very interesting piece to read, thank you. My personal circumstances are quirky, but perhaps not so unusual in this economic climate: I’m poor right now, but college-educated and from a middle-class or upper-middle family. My husband is self-employed and I’m working a retail job for the health insurance, as we have two young children. I think that my main assets are ones that you brought up: education, and (more importantly) *sounding* well-educated: proper grammar, good manners, the ability to wade through bureaucracy. So, I am in the not-so-enviable position of knowing EXACTLY how I’d act if I were poor… sigh. Being that we’re pretty thoroughly blue-collar at the moment, we don’t spend any money on clothes or things like that. I do over-spend on the kids’ preschool, and on family vacations, good food (I can’t ever quit Whole Foods, because I’m hooked on the employee discount now…) That said, I still shake my head over some of the things that I see my coworkers buy, or covet. The status symbols that you described (nice cars, clothes, etc) are tickets to better jobs, or so-called upward mobility. But there are plenty of status symbols that do not lend themselves to a higher-class image. I know women that spend as much on their nails as I do on my children’s preschool, and it’s not for the classy French manicure that you described, but for tacky 3-inch-long talons with designs on every nail. Funny how you see those on cashiers but not on the store manager… “Bling”, gold teeth, rims (for cars), the latest phones with tricked-out cases (NOT professional-looking), hip-hop attire. These are also status symbols, and not just for Black, Hispanic, or the so-called “urban” young. It’s one thing to point out that a silk shell could equal a newer, better job, but how to explain blowing off the electricity bill to get a manicure that would actually *prevent* a young woman from getting a better job?

    Anyway, my finances are a wreck and I’m in no place to judge; it’s none of my business. Just wondering what your take is on other kinds of status-spending that can’t lead to a better position outside of certain industries?

    1. Sounds like you aren’t poor, you’re broke. Also, how can someone who considers Whole Foods a reasonable use of limited funds judge anyone for their spending choices?

      1. Well, as I said, I don’t think that I am in a position to judge. Why would it be any of my business how anyone else chooses to spend their money? And I freely admitted that my household does overspend in several areas. Whole Foods… is kind of a mixed bag. It can be a whole lot more expensive than other places to buy food, or not, depending on what you buy. If you want (or need) to avoid certain ingredients, it’s actually cheaper and easier to shop there, especially with a 25% discount.

        Regarding poor vs. broke… I am not sure I understand the difference. How long must one be broke before one is poor? i think too many of us are desperately clinging to the label of “middle-class” because we wish it were true; because it *used* to be true. We have been “low-income” for about 3 years now, and although my husband’s business is slowly gaining traction, it will be some time before we can crawl out from under that label. It’s a nice thought that maybe we’re not actually poor, merely broke, but I do not think that it’s accurate.

        Your response does not address my question. The author makes the case that spending on luxury items is justified because it can open doors– the right suit, the right undergarments, the right car. I simply asked her opinion about over-spending on items that will not open those doors, and might even push them further closed.

        1. George Bernard Shaw wrote about “the unsuccessful middle class” and pointed the distinction between them and the working class. A working class laborer would scorn to have boots with holes in them; he’s clean, tidy, appropriately dressed, and always eats well by the lights of his class. The unsuccessful middle class fellow has holes in his boots, looks like a bum, owes money everywhere, goes hungry, and sucks at managing his money. Just paraphrasing Shaw here. But I know what he means. You don’t have to grow up without money to be bad at managing it.

        2. Mara,
          I’m too curious to know that response. I guess as I continue to scroll down I hope I will see one.

          I completely understand the concept of dress for the job you want, not the job you have, but like Mara asked, why thousands on gold and plantium on top of your teeth or $250 on the latest Air Jordan sneakers??

        3. I think Eel Lee stopped reading when he saw you shopped at Whole Foods, and not sure he noted you shopped there as you got the employee discount. Speaking of poverty, his is a poverty of attention span. 😉 You are quite right that there are different reasons/situations people buy things, and not all of them are to use as leverage to “get ahead” or be seen as higher class so to open doors for their families.

          My own mother who ison a tight but sufficient budget still buys useless stuff that serves no purpose. Not a silk shell or a designer bag but junk … and then has no money for basics. Some people are poor because they have no impulse control. This is not the type of situation the article discusses.

          My mother is the architect of her own, and our family’s financial misfortune. She brainlessly ruined our family financially through misuse of credit cards, overspending on junk and lying about it to my father. There was no “strategy” in her spending, just impulsivity. She even took out cards in our names and wrecked our credit ratings. My father made good money but due to my mom’s over spending they lost our family home … this happened two times until they finally ended up in the “rent vortex” in a rented apartment. My dad at one time made enough to live in a luxurious prestige home. I just don’t get how this could happen, why he did not “shut her down” or divorce her, though I’m glad we didn’t have to live as kids through a divorce.

          She is now 87 years old and still overspends and leaves nothing for the basics. She calls at month end and gets angry if we don’t give her money, and talks about how she has nothing to live for and really ramps up the guilt trip. Usually it works (on me) my brothers and older sister won’t listen. I (now) will only give her meal tickets in her subsidized retirement home. She can’t spend those, but god knows she’s probably figured out some derivative strategy and exchanges them for a pittance of their value to someone. And she does try the guilt trip on me, but this month I’m not giving her $$. Last month I paid her overdue phone bill and gave her about $400 in total. I’m a part time person, I don’t even spend that much on myself. I guess I’m an enabler, its awfully hard not to be, but no matter how much she gets she still doesn’t have enough money to pay her rent. True story.

    2. Mara, I think you missed something in your reading. The author makes a clear distinction between people who are born poor and people who are “poor for a little while.” I.e., if you are going on family vacations – much less over-spending on them – you are not actually poor. Actual poor people often don’t ever get a chance to leave to city they were born in. You are broke. I’ve been there. You’ll get out of it. Re-read that last paragraph.

      But the point is, because you were raised by people who had college educations (I presume) or at least an “upper-middle family,” and because you are white, you have more freedom in how you dress and present yourself. There is a difference in how white people (I speak for myself, I am white) and people of color are perceived in public spaces. Ask yourself, of your co-workers of color, how many of them show up with ripped jeans? How many wear worn out shoes, faded clothes, or carry old backpacks. How many show up with their hair not “done?” I would wager none. My high school friend used to iron her jeans. Can you imagine? Ironing your jeans??? That is being raised with a sense of what you need to do to be presentable, at a level that you and I never had to even think about. We can afford to not do that. We can afford to walk down the street with holes in our knees. Sometimes we might even buy jeans that way (well, not me, but some people.) The only time I ever see a person of color with ripped clothes is when they are truly homeless/shelterless and probably also have mental health issues. This is because people of color are held to a different standard. And while you can show up, with your college education and husband who owns his own business and your hetero-privilege (I’m not being mean, I’m just stating what is so), in a cotton tank top, and probably get a job at Whole Foods, a person of color has to wear clean, new, un-torn, un-faded items just to walk down the street or go shopping, and be seen as respectable. I know this seems ridiculous but it really is true. (I don’t know if this is different on the West Coast. I live on the East Coast. I could imagine it being different. But Barney’s is in NY…)

      As for the woman with the nails, we do not know if they’re status symbols or not for her. Maybe she just likes them. Either way this woman is making different choices about what is important to her than you are. She is free to do this. Maybe she has different ambitions. Maybe she doesn’t have children she needs to put through preschool. Maybe those nails make her happy and that’s what she values and chooses to spend money on. And maybe they are status symbols, but in a place/situation that you have no status in, so therefore cannot understand. This is status of a different kind than getting ahead in Corporate America, so Corporate America (read: much of white America) devalues it. But it is obviously valuable (because it costs money) and therefore has a payout. Whether people outside of the system can comprehend that payout or not, is insignificant.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Ann– thanks for actually addressing my actual question! I feel that every other response I got was merely parsing my own level of poorness/ broke-ness, which is hardly the issue. After all, I could just as easily have posed my question without giving any background on myself at all. As I’ve said a few times now, I don’t care in the slightest how others spend their dough; I just wondered what the author thought of ‘status’ spending that did not equate to ‘better jobs etc’ spending.

      1. No doubt KillerMartinis is from a different perspective than tressiemc. It isn’t as well written and it doesn’t have the same credibility. That said, both messages on making decisions helped me learn to not be so judgemental.

        Maybe KillerMartinis is a scam or a fraud, but both her initial and 2nd message were helpful to me in building compassion and an openness I did not have before.

        It was good to find both authors in this thanksgiving season. As our nation’s economy wanes and the federal government fails to keep us all in our benefits, I hope to see us be more fair and support each other more.

  40. I really liked this article and I want to point out that the concept of looking great is not just a “Black or Brown” issue. I am a 68 year old white male and I am in my 44th year in the financial services industry, working as the national sales manager of an insurance firm. But when my wife of 43 years and I got married, we had a combined net worth of minus $5,000 and I earned $125 per week as a premium collector. One of our first purchases was a blue sport jacket, two pairs of slacks, three white shirts and two “rep” ties. We both knew that I had to look as good as possible. We took a $5 bill to Chapin’s grocery each week to buy our food for the week. We dressed up for the trip! Hard work for 4 years took me into entry-level management. Eight more years took me to middle management and a few more to senior management. I read a lot of “success” books including the classic “Dress For Success”, a must read for anyone who wants to advance. I always bought the clothes which I saw people wear at the next level! We never could afford those clothes. The same went for cars. I always bought a late model American car because I was selling to Americans! Later, when I gave training seminars to new agents, I would bring in a clothing store manager along to show these new agents how to buy good business ensembles as reasonably as possible. I’ll never forget how one of these men stressed the importance of shining your shoes every day. He actually gave a demonstration on how to put a good military shine on a pair of wingtips. Incidentally, I have hired minorities over the years. Although I was more empathetic than the VP in your article, I did make hiring decisions based somewhat on first impression. If the candidate showed some coachable aspects, I would overlook the inexpensive clothing if the candidate was clean. I always remembered my humble beginnings. I want to thank you for this article and hope that it is well read!

    1. I have to agree with you on a lot of what you say! My wife and I make fairly good money but between us we spend to much on cars and knick knacks instead of buying stocks and mutual funds and bonds! I f you look at people who have money they put their money into investments instead of toys as I put it! Read the millionaire next door and it will tell the whole story. We now being in our 50’s now own 2 homes and have stocks and mutual funds but also drive a 50 thousand dollar car which I cannot sell for what I own on it!

    2. Thank you so much for this actual feedback from the field. And bravo. I also have stacked the odds in my own favor by dressing beyond my means but by doing it through the rich market of second-hand goods available nowadays. It takes a lot of pursuit, but is such a rewarding way of life.

    3. I’ve noticed that, with a lot of institutions, Prof. Hill of “My Fair Lady” was right; you can get away with wearing cheap copies of fashionable clothes et al if you *speak* properly. I’ve intimidated whole clinics full of doctors, nurses, technicians and clerks by explaining (in proper non-slang English) that I knew (and could quote citations) more medical details about a particular condition than they did. I suppose it didn’t hurt that I listed my occupation as “musician”; artists of any stripe are allowed more leeway in clothes than people in other occupations. Still, I saw clear evidence that it was the *speech* that did it for me.

    4. I agree totally that this is not a racial thing only. I am a 67 year old white woman, and how you present yourself matters. It is much more than looks, too. Your looks, speech, and behavior reveal you knowledge of the real world, which is important in the working world. Had I tried to do graduate school with the dialect I grew up with, I’d have been left out, no matter that I had all As. No business wants someone who does not speak standard language representing them any more than they want someone who is inappropriately dressed. I was horrified recently to find a sign on the door of a business saying it was closed in horrible, obviously native-speaker non-standard English. I hesitate to return there for fear of what else they don’t know. We have free public education in the US. Why did this person not avail him/herself of it? I don’t want to do business with someone like that. Heaven only knows what might happen! (THIS is how the real world views poor presentation.)

      We grew up poor, too. But my family had the morals and values to demand that we learn, that we attend school, that we respect others in society and that we work very hard and always give our very best. We were taught a value system that demands that one be at one’s post at least a minute before the beginning of the work day and that you not leave until the day’s work is done. Life isn’t about what you get; it is about what you contribute. That is what makes for happiness, too. Vivian was dead right: people who can do, must do.

      One of my friends and I used to share one suit–and we both got the jobs we wanted wearing it. It was not, however, a designer suit. It just looked very professional. You can achieve that wearing less than top of the line clothing, and there are many discount places to buy very good-quality clothing for very little money. We do our own nails, too, this friend and I. But we DO them. That is the main thing. And ladies, polish your shoes, too. Women often don’t.

      So, it’s not about poor. It’s about values and morals and ethics. If you don’t know something, use my Mom’s and my Grandmother’s favorite response on yourself. “I don’t know. Let’s look it up!” And we did. Always. I’m sure Vivian did, too. And how blessed we are to have had those people in our lives!

  41. The Errol Louis post at the beginning serves to illustrate a thought that seems to be held by many – that freedom of choice is only for those who can afford it. This post illuminates why those that seem like they can’t afford it may need it the most.

    1. Exactly. It is also worthwhile to note that in the U.S., there is a huge aftermarket for these goods, so seeing a person with a luxury item may mean he or she is simply an extremely savvy consumer, allowing those with means to buy retail, and then picking up deals from consignment deals, trades, and a number of other aftermarket outlets, such as Ebay or Craigslist.

  42. Dear Tressie,

    Some time has passed between when I first found your writing, and now. I started with the essay, “When Your (Brown) Body Is a (White) Wonderland.” With that, I knew you were a powerful and amazing writer. This essay meant a great deal to me. I relate to your words on a deep level. Though our experiences and knowledges are different, they fit together and overlap in salient ways.

    Like I said, I read these essays of yours closer to when they were originally posted. But in the last week, I’ve been inspired and rejuvenated to pick up my own public essay writing. (I’m writing my dissertation and had put blogging on the back burner.) Just now, when I reflected on some of the voices and pieces of writing that have helped to renew my inspiration and willingness to go public with my writing, your web presence must be acknowledged. Thank you for being brave. You are truly an inspiration, to me and to so many of your readers.

    Thank you.


  43. I Belive mostly women over spend because they have a void in their life. ” oh won’t that $2500 ” purse make me look successful ?! Then the bill comes. I’m 61 and have a single female friend. Why? Because women are just plain catty. I live in S. CA. On a marina island. Get up throw on sweats the broads look right thru you. Try fixing your hair, a dressy jogging suit and some jewelry and they smile right into those same eyes. I said hello the day before it’s not gonna happen now. Now move your plastic face and nails out of my way!

  44. While I agree with your article wholeheartedly, my heart keeps nagging at me to ask the question… I understand the need to have nice clothes to look that part but that is not what I’ve seen the poor waste their money on in my experiences as a teacher in the projects of DC. I would go into an apartment on a home visit and the family would be sitting on a dirty mattress on the floor staring at a $1000 television. The children would have 35 pairs of Nikes, a different pair to match each outfit…. The hair weaves that cost $400… manicures, phones with internet, DVDs, etc… I could go on and on. There is looking nice to help others at the Social Services office and there is ridiculously wasting money you don’t have when your primary needs are not being met. I have a masters degree and a pretty good job. My family will never have a television that costs more than $80, my child will only have one or two pairs of shoes at a time, my handbags will always be from Walmart, I’ve never had a manicure, many of our clothes come from ebay and thrift stores. My phones will never have data until I have no other choice. I will always cut, color, and style my own hair and I will still be able to serve others from dusk till dawn. I think friends in poverty often lack the ability to prioritize and have fiscal responsibility. I think educating people in money management from an early age on and reducing our fascination with crap are going to be key in saving America and fixing poverty for future generations. I think this whole status symbol/ brand name/ I need to spend hundreds to feel good about myself idea is all a sham presented to you by corporate America whose only goal is to empty your wallet. The smartest Americans are the ones who have the greatest power of resistance in my book.

  45. I don’t think most people who are not wealthy, this includes the poor and the middle class, are buying over priced status symbols as a means of survival or as a means of trying to get in. Often these purchases, especially if they are purchased on credit cards, are a means to get further behind.

  46. I tried to return a $700 dress to Lord & Taylors (high fashion retail) in NY a few years ago. I, a young black man, was sent on this errand by my boss, a well-educated, enterprising Chinese woman who ran a renting agency where I worked managing her apartments. The dress was not worn, within the return window by store policy, had the tag, the receipt, and was thouroughly inspected by security. To them I was running a monumental con. I went upstairs to the security room where all the security officers gathered and questioned me. They were ALL black and Hispanic.

    For more than half an hour I insisted that I was just trying to do my job, hoping for some empathy from fellow minorities who, IMO should have understood not only the difficulty in getting my job but the need to be be thorough in it’s execution because of higher expectations for ”us”; wearing hip-hop jeans and a NorthFace jacket. They were all in suits and, unconvinced. I had them call my boss, whom to them, I imagine, might as well have been a faceless accomplice. They showed me the door in short order and my boss was displeased to see me again with the shoppping bag in hand.

    A week later she stepped into my little office with a fur mantle and expensive-looking sunglasses. She said she was going to return the dress, and that this was lost time for her since I couldn’t get the job done, handing me a list a things to do. Upon return she told me the exchange took less than 5 minutes and that I should know how to present myself if I want to be a successful career man. lamenting that she had to ”teach me how to work”. I was insensed! thinking. <>

    …She was absolutely right! I’d thank her for teaching me how to work if I met her again. Valuable work experience.

  47. You’re statement is hogwash. We “poor people,” donnot have a clue. I’m just a United States Marine,,, what would I know? I know WHO you are, where you reside, and your daily habits. You’re one of those rare individuals, who can just look at another human being, and know everything there is to know about that person… your lack of understanding of the human condition is sickening. You are hereby, warned. There are consequences for your words. Semper Fi, asshole!

  48. I see how some chicks take the welfare and blow it on them self..I can see that…but some of use give it all to our children. And my nice cloths that people think are high dollar.there from the salvation army. I think since I was a mother that had a beautiful child and with no father made it harder. I also think they should drug test everyone before giving food stamps or cash assistance and even housing. If they have time For drugs Than they have time to piss… GO GOOD MOMS

  49. …wow! You think only black poor people have this problem?! Welcome to the REAL world – where being smart and white and dressed neat and a good looking young person is a detriment!….where high test scores are NOT counted because it “wouldn’t be fair” to someone with lower scores – who should have as good a chance as you – !!! This equal rights thing has gone over to total insanity…it is now politically correct to hire an ugly , fat, preferably brown ,incompetant slob – to “give them a chance” …hah! Try being me and see!

  50. I am white and Native American. My skin color is white and while I’ve been asked by Colombians and Cubans if I am Colombian or Cuban, U.S. Americans usually take me for white, plain and simple. I am tall and beautiful. So, even though my wardrobe consists of clothes bought from the thrift store, I generally “look well off” even though I am definitely poor. I grew up poor. My mother was a single mother raising me and my older sibling and she never had the intuition described here to dress in brand names couture outfits to appear acceptable. My mother smoked to calm her nerves daily, didn’t drive a car because she could not buy one and so rode public busses as did her children, dressed frumpily and always looked short and frumpy. She did not have this special intuition and didn’t raise me to have it either. I needed seeing glasses from Kindergarten on, but did not get my first pair until I was a Sophomore in High School. I walked around school in shoes from the thrift shop, combat boots that literally flapped when I walked because the soles of them had separated from the tops of the boots. I was clearly poor and did not have any fancy clothes or school supplies and yet, because I am white, people have always assumed I came from a wealthy or middle class family. I am grown now and still poor and no it is not easy not to be poor, unless I go marry a rich man, but I would NEVER marry for money, so THAT is out of the question. Even if I wanted to buy a $2, 500 handbag, even if I work for many, many months to save for such a thing just so that the folks at the pantry or LINK office will take me more seriously, I would not be able to afford it, still. I live much less than paycheck to paycheck. My monthly rent alone costs 10$ more than my monthly check brings in, which is my income for the entire month. Looking the way I do, if I were to put on a paper bag, people would still believe I’ve got money. That’s the curse of being white skinned and poor and tall, I think being taller than average has something to do with it. Perhaps I am taken more seriously because people in the U.S. where I live assume the color of my skin makes me middle class or above by magical default. It does not work that way, but people believe what they want to believe. Just as people believe I am thin by default. I actually grew up fat as a child, because being poor, crap food was our norm and crap food destroys the human body. I finally decided I’d exercise for 2 hours a day as a Junior in High School, and I lost 80 pounds. I’m thin now because I continue to exercise and try not to eat a lot of cheap crap food even though I have to stretch my food over an entire month, but I try to make healthier food choices. Also, I try to keep my stress levels down, which helps with weight maintenance. Stress tends to be high on poor people. I’m always worried about how I’m going to make it on my unlivable wage. As a poor kid, worries were of school bullying about shoes, clothes, etc. and is mom going to lose our living space and we’re going to be out on the street. I am ever so grateful that we did not become homeless. I still worry about becoming homeless as that could easily happen to me. I am single and my mom helps me out when she can, but really, how do poor people find a way to even purchase fancy clothes for social survival or cars or tv’s, etc. I’ve never been able to afford such things. The nicest store I’ve shopped at as an adult on my own money was Marshalls or K-mart or Burlington Coat Factory. There’s no way I could walk into a Neiman Markus and purchase a beautiful runway coat or whatever. There’s just no way. I mean, how do poor people even manage to find the money to pull off the front? My coat I wear right now costed me $12 at a thrift store. It is outdated. I like it, but it makes me look 10 years older than my young age and it certainly wouldn’t have been my pick if I had money to buy a coat new instead of used. I have a tv, but no cable. I have a radio, but no ipod or other device. I have a cellphone, but no landline and definitely no iPhone. I have clothes, but nothing new. I have heat and electricity included in my rent. This studio I live in is one of the few that hasn’t been infested by roaches. I have never had a car, nor do I go to a salon to get a haircut but once every 2-3 years. Can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a dentist. I just don’t know how a poor person could afford to pay for anything acceptable to the rich elite. I’m too poor for that. If I get money, I spend it on food. Not that I wouldn’t like a sequined ball gown from Macy’s, but yeah, that’s not about to happen. And if it ever does happen, it won’t while I’m still poor.

  51. You know how you are searching on google for one thing, and something completely the other way shows up, yet you are intrigued and cannot stop reading. *INSERT ME* lol…

    It only took the first line to hook me in. this article was absoultely amazing. brilliantly written and very true. finally, all the things I’ve been thinking but haven’t put into words. As a professional black woman, I know all to well of the stories in which you speak..

    Thanks for sharing


  52. OH MY GOODNESS! This is a magnificently written piece. Sooo eloquent. So succinct, So cogent. So true. I have no idea your age, but your writing reminds me of how we used to write, and it was wonderful to have read your article. No homegirl, no jive talk, no ebonics. Great command of the “king’s language.” Your mother taught you well..

  53. Ok first off I can’t believe I just sat here a read that whole article. This was a bunch of useless judgmental BS. I grew up in Detroit so yeah I know a lot of the type of people you are talking about and you obviously have no idea what some people go through. Not everyone has family that joins the military and takes care of them. Not everybody gets a good education. Not everybody gets insurance money when a loved one dies. Actually I don’t know anyone who had any of these privileges. So yeah I don’t think anybody at least not anybody in their right mind chooses to be poor. Most of them didn’t have parents that helped them along the way. Some were abused, abandoned, or neglected. So if they grow up and finally come into a little money and want to spend it on a nice handbag or designer clothes that is their choice. You don’t know them or what they are going through. A new Louis Vuitton or Gucci handbag might make all the difference in the world to them. It might even give them the confidence they need to conquer their worldly troubles. Besides there are way more poor people who might not have much but would give what they do have to someone else in need, too bad I can’t say the same about any rich people.

  54. I’m this old-school character, probably most of ya’s moms/dads, or granny’s age. But whats important here is the daze, and not the craze involved in making; crazy-expensive-purchases, outside the budget. This is how much I love you. “don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the re-newing of your mind”. Keep looking at the enemy and his toys, and you will be as he is. STRUNG-OUT.

  55. Most people have wondered what it would be like to be wealthy. Well, I have numerous friends with considerable wealth, and they all envy me because I ave that one commodity they can’t posess. JOY!!!!

  56. What these ignorant people don’t understand is that everyone has a genetic ceiling. Just as there are genetic differences that cause diseases like down syndrome, autism, among many many others, there are also genetic differences that are not so obvious. Like severe anxiety issues or any of the other billions of things that our genetic code determines. Some people simply can’t handle pressure or high anxiety jobs. It’s not their fault, they try just as hard as we do but for some reason they just cant seem to become successful enough to be considered rich. Are there people out there who are lazy and don’t apply themselves, ABSOLUTELY, but for the most part people do what they can. Our species has to be this way. Everybody can’t be rich. There has to be the poor in order for their to be the rich. Who the hell is going to be willing to do all the work if there are no poor people to become rich off of. Yes that’s what I said, we become rich off the backs of the poor. I inherited my money and my parents businesses. I work hard dont get me wrong, I have a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and if the businesses fail it’s all on me but I am not ignorant to the fact that my employees do most of the actual work. (I’m speaking of my lowest payed employees. The hourly guys near or at minimum wage guys) If it wasnt for them being willing to work for me at the low wages they do then I could not make the money I do. I pay my employees very well and I STILL profit more than enough for my family to not have to worry about anything financially. I pay a few dollars more and hour than other places similar to mine would pay. Because of this I expect for my employees to work hard at all times for me and for the most part they do their best because they know I care for them and they know I understand them. I found the fact that I profit a little less it is worth knowing that my employees are happy and the Moral is good and that they will work hard for me as we respect each other mutually. Anyway back to my original point. These people do their best and most of them couldnt handle doing anything more than they do. (I would never tell them that because that’s just down right demeaning) but I’m a realist and that is a fact. I will not look down on them for this. I had an amazing father who made a lot of money himself therefor I was one of the lucky ones who received great genetics. The point is. THESE PEOPLE DO THE BEST TO THEIR ABILITIES. IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT THE ONLY JOBS THAT ARE SUITABLE FOR THEM HAPPEN TO BE LOW PAYING JOBS. THEY DO NOT DESERVE TO BE TREATED LIKE CRAP BECAUSE OF THIS, THEY DO NOT DESERVE TO BE LOOKED DOWN UPON, AND THEY MOST CERTAINLY DO NOT DESERVE TO HAVE TO STRUGGLE JUST TO PUT A ROOF OVER THEIR KIDS HEAD. WE NEED TO LOOK OUT FOR THEM NOT KICK THEM WHILE THEY ARE DOWN. SMH HAVE HEARTS PEOPLE JEEZ. No working American should have to struggle like people who live in poverty do. It’s inhuman and we should take more pride in the fact that we are all americans and we should all stick together. Even if that means giving up some of what we have to them just because. Plus if you want to look at it from a business standpoint, People who make under 50,000 a year are 100% more likely to spend most if not all of their income than someone who makes over 100,000 a year. The more money these people have the more they are gonna spend so its going to end up back into our pockets eventually. Thanks guys. At the same time dont get me wrong. Im not saying lets give all our money away and not be rich anymore. We deserve to be rich. We took a lot of risk to be rich. We just don’t need to be as rich as we are. Let’s throw them a bone per say.

  57. I do not believe the majority of poor people buying luxury goods are doing so to position themselves for better job opportunities. I believe the majority are doing it mindlessly to create an image or perception about themselves among their peers (who generally poor themselves). They are trying to fit in to the materialistic, conspicuous consumption society to which we all belong. By wasting the precious little money they have on expensive junk, they could be saving and putting the money to better use towards a stable life for themselves or building the foundation for their children to springboard.
    I grew up starving, dirty, living in a shack, welfare mother, no father, neglected and abused. I know poor and I therefore know what I would do – did do. I struggled to work a part time job as a single mother, putting every dime I had into living clean and healthy while putting myself through college. I shopped at the salvation army or garage sales for nice but used clothes. I stayed poor and lived poor until I got my Bachelor’s degree. Then you know what, I applied for scholarships and worked part-time and got my Master’s degree. I am the first in my extended family to go to college. And guess what, today I am distinctly upper middle class with a six-figure income, no debt, huge savings. I never lost my pattern of saving over spending, so I have amassed quite a nest egg. I put both of my daughters through college, have a big beautiful home and am hoping to retire early.
    But it all started from a “real” poor kid realizing that short-term sacrifice reaps long-term gains every time. I feel bad that these poor kids (even the not so poor kids) think the way to success, happiness, acceptance is through buying some expensive materialistic junk. Yes always try to look your best, but don’t make some millionaire even richer by giving him your last dollar for his overpriced handbag. Hey, now I’m in marketing management so I know exactly who’s behind the perceived “need” for nonessential goods.

  58. I have some news for you, “White folks” have to play the game as well if they want to win, Why do most Black people think just because someone is White they live a charmed life where everything is handed to them? It’s utter horse sh**!

  59. First, poor people like me can’t buy fancy things as you are saying. I’m almost 30 years old and I’m hoping to go to law school soon.. All great right? I can’t afford to take courses for my LSATs. I live alone, I work a fulltime job but I need 3 full time jobs. Ive never had nice things. Never have had anything that anyone had envied. I live paycheck to paycheck and I’d love to work for the life I’d desire. But I work and work and get no where. Granted I work at animal hospitals. I suppose I asked to be paid peanuts your right. But what can I do? It’s a mans world and all I want to do is be independent and support myself. You really don’t know the meaning of poor do you? I have card tables as my kitchen tables, a futon as my couch, my bed from when I was in high school, that’s all my furniture! My car is a death trap.. Sometimes I don’t know if I can afford food for the month but my pride refuses to allow me to go for government help. I hate to accept charity.. If I do I need to work it off. I have a bachelors degree.. But no one will hire me.. I want law school but I’m at a complete stand still. Just be nice. I understand when you see someone selling their food stamps or driving a Mercedes while on welfare.. That’s not me. I’m some one with hope.. Trying, working, dreaming and not giving up.

    1. Melissa,
      I can attest to your issues. If you might call them issues of which they are in relation to where you want to go. I envy you in that you will not give up. I…at a time in my life was on the verge of giving up. Went through a very difficult divorce and have three little ones. Deep in debt I struggle with many demons. The mind is very powerful. After about 1.5 years, I am starting to come back to where I was prior to ten years of marriage. Even though I am deep in debt, I work a menial job in order to provide child support for my 3 kids and try to survive on my own. There have been days when I didn’t eat any food in order to provide for my children the four days that I have them each month. Life can be a struggle for sure. I have a bachelor’s degree as well. I lost a very good job in IT Security for a fairly large corporation in 2009. I had a very difficult time in landing another opportunity. I sacrificed my time and life for my now ex wife that started a business during a very depressing time. I spent about 50-60 hours per week taking care of my kids as a stay at home father only to be blind sided by my now ex wife with a divorce. I was kicked out of my home with no job and had to live off of my retirement savings for several months. Starvation can be a pretty good motivator, but it sure is not a healthy choice. I have even traded work for rent and food in order to survive.

      I had to give up for quite some time in order to heal from divorce. The experience was above all the worst and most challenging for sure. It makes for a very unhealthy situation for the father as well as for the kids. I am now starting to look at other opportunities in the world. Simple things to make money and to meet people. I have done some of the most undesirable jobs in the last few years in order to survive. A job doesn’t make a man/woman.

      I wish you the best in your endeavors. Cherish all of the time that you have on earth as you gain more experience and try to reach your goals. It is still a very tough economy. No job or anything for that matter is guaranteed in life. Live your life and do your best to create happiness in your life for it is a long sprint:)

    2. Melissa, I read your post and want to help. I work in admissions at a DC law school. I cannot promise you admission, but I am willing to talk to you and formulate a plan to get you where you want to be. You can find my Facebook page with this comment. Please reach out as you can.

    3. I feel your pain. I got my Masters degree and I can’t find work. Any work. Even applied for dishwasher jobs. I only get by (barely) because I’m on disability and living with my parents. No body don’t want no body without experience, and I got none.

    4. You need to get out of your own way. Is it pride that causes you to turn away from the little government help that is available, or is it right wing propaganda that has defined you as, somehow, less if you don’t suffer in silence? Do you think you’ll be better off with a belly full of false pride, or you feel better with a full belly and some physical energy. And remember that, when you tell yourself that no one will hire you, the universe will agree with you. Keep filling out those resumes; keep your spirits up, volunteer.

      I am 74, and no longer prosperous thanks for the North Country’s version of Bernie Maddoff. My husband pretty much gave up on life after that happened and has passed away. My situation is similar to yours in that I drive a 25-year-old car that runs great, hunt for clothes at Value Village and similar sources. I shop wisely, get a small government pension from my years in the work force, and get a little top up because I’m low income. The difference is, I live in Canada, and I’m grateful for the help I get from government and other sources because, over the years, I happily paid into the system on which I’m now dependent. Our current PM is trying to work quietly toward a system more like that in the US, but I don’t think he has a chance. Canadians are conservative at heart, but not to policies that would deny all Canadians a decent standard of living.

  60. Well, I am from a poor country, Hungary, and we tend to have the same or similar habits as the American Black poor. Golden chains? Check. Latest Nike sneakers? Check. Replay T-shirts? Well you may not know that specific brand over there, the point is, if Replay is printed in large letters all over your chest everybody knows you paid the equivalent of a week of minimum wage for it.

    This has NOTHING to do with being presentable or classy or respectable or high status amongst upper middle class people. This is about gaining status amongst EACH OTHER. The upper middle class person respects a cheap necktie much more than a $100 t-shirt with Nike sneakers. But the poor respect the un-classy but expensive bling-bling more.

    In poor circles, a golden chain feels like an awesome power trip. You can almost smell the envy.

    My golden chain was empty in the inside to make it look bigger. And it was short so that it can be wider for the same money and would generally show around my neck and not be hidden in the t-shirt. Every time someone looked at me I earned some “the guy you should not fuck with, as his money signals power” points. And it felt awesome. Classy people thought it crass.

    Now, living in a rich country, with classy people I miss that power trip. When classy people signal status with a Rolex watch that is kind of meek. It does not have that pure, aggressive, in your face, threatening, my-penis-is-bigger-than-yours feeling than when poor people signal status to each other with a gold chain. I miss that feeling, that power trip.

  61. Very interesting. I have always eschewed designer bags and fancy clothes. I felt wise for being so thrifty. I hardly ever buy new shoes. I never realized that people would actually look for brand labels when hiring. Sometimes I hate this petty world.

  62. I’m middle class and I would never think of buying designer clothes anywhere close those prices. What a load of BS. It’s really about acquiring status symbols to improve self-esteem.

  63. Dressing for the job you want is not a race based idea but when affirmative action is always in the background all you really have to judge education, work history and the person on is how they look. Sad but thank white guilt and “leaders” in the black community for that, not racism. So yes it is more important in the black community as based on skin color the benefit from affirmative action is the largest. Sorry might be a little to real for some but being poor, poor educated and getting where I have only based on my ability to work I missed all the sensitivity training and just blurt out the painfully obvious.

  64. I get that you all are trained to want to “fit in” but all you’re doing is perpetuating the disconnect between the world as it is and the world as it should be. The class system isn’t unfair, you are. You create it. No matter where I am or what I have or don’t, the most important thing to me is the expression of my nature. If you live truthfully, you can’t fail, even if you die of starvation. Nobody can validate your existence or worth, and the sooner you understand that the sooner you can start thriving.

    1. “If you live truthfully, you can’t fail, even if you die of starvation.”

      What exactly does failure mean to you, then? I have two children. Dying is pretty much what I’m trying to avoid.

      And to the person above who said Asians are the exception–they don’t need handbags. They are Asian! They have their faces and the prejudice and bigotry, good and bad, that goes with that.

  65. Your current life situation might have landed you in poorness. But your choices are what keep you there. It’s about how you react. Are you going to sit back and allow your situation to push you around?
    Or are you going to read books, get online, find the answer to your problems?

    Read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, and The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco.

    These will change your life. But only, and only, if you decide that you want to change your life first.

    1. Bilal Asad,

      Hey there. Well, over the last 2 years I have read a plethora of books regarding divorce, relationships, financial accounting, collective intelligence, business startups, meditation, budgeting in corporate america down to the family and many others. I personally do not sit around too much in light of my circumstances, but holy S*%#!!…I needed time to heal the mind…to quiet the mind. Most recently, a BIG trigger in my life called my children havent been around for the last three weeks. As a result, I find myself depressed at times. I am learning to remove this attachment from my life for I was very very attached to my little girls. It is time to move on to bigger and better things and let them deal with the aftermath of a decision that was not mine.

      Imagine going from a pretty comfortable situation to nothing…a cliff that I was pushed off of. That is ok. Lost a job in 2005…picked myself up and struggled but found employment in a better position in 2006…lost this job in 2009…struggled to find another and did(not career related) in 2010…lasted a year…found another job in 2012 that lasted a month…depression really set in…2 months later…now ex wife filed for divorce…next…kicked out of my own home with 2.5 days to spare…no job …bouncing off of the walls! 🙂 Quite a bit of change to endure. I am sure there are others in worse situations. So, I reach out to friends from the old neighborhood to find opportunities. I have learned to let go of my pride that was keeping me down. I am still having problems with it at times, but I lean on God and submit to God instead of all of the anxiety associated to worry.

      With my head partially in the clouds, I reach out to old colleagues in search of something better…something that I can perform well with regards to a profession. Life is hard if I think it is even with all of the debt stacked against me…I move on and try to look at things with the glass half full. Rich Dad Poor Dad costs money…money that I do not have. I investigated already and have learned from others that invested in the program that it is not necessary. I was on the grow rich slowly campaign. Now it will be a bit more difficult. Life IS about choices and I do not regret ever getting married and brandishing three kids. I have learned an enormous amount as a result. In my case with respect to my 10 year marriage…I was married to a person with a different attitude..,one of snobbery and lacking in compassion and support. It may not be related to the snobbery so much, but the fact that we had a few children and we both lost sight of what marriage is all about. It happens and the ex spouse gave up. Hard pill to swallow, but I have gone from anger and frustration to more of acceptance. There will undoubtedly be more tests to come. Especially from a very manipulative ex spouse.

      So Bilal, I do want to change my life and it is a work in progress. For some it happens over night. In my case…change has been happening for some time. I am not to where I want to be, but I am learning through other people of how much I have changed. Still in reactive mode…I am getting back to becoming more proactive. Thanks for

      “(Your current life situation might have landed you in poorness. But your choices are what keep you there. It’s about how you react. Are you going to sit back and allow your situation to push you around?
      Or are you going to read books, get online, find the answer to your problems?)”

      for my mind was not able to comprehend. Re-gaining some sort of self confidence and esteem goes a long way.


  66. I just came across this article and it made me chuckle. It reminded me of one of my co-workers. Although, technically she and her husband would not be considered poor, they are more upper middle class. But if you ask her she will tell you she’s poor. But she’s always taking fabulous trips here and there, buying brand new cars, shopping at Saks, Neiman Marcus, Nordstroms, etc. Yesterday she came in the office complaining about paying $800 for a water heater. I said to her what’s the problem haven’t you paid more than that for a handbag. (She’s dropped $1200 and more for Gucci and Fendi handbags.) She got quiet and then said “yes.” I asked her what’s more important. She didn’t speak to me the rest of the day.

  67. That’s a fair point. However it should be noted that not everyone is using that kind of logic that “This expensive item is going to help me get out of my situation”. Some just Want it. Those with junk cars decked out with $3,000 in stereo equipment are an easy example.

    One mistake being made in this assumption though is that people are logical and these poor folk are just acting illogical. No, people in general are illogical, period, and that’s what being human means.

    It’s also a matter of priorities. My father would be happy driving a run down car and living in a trailer. Yet when my parents could barely afford to pay the bills, my mother INSISTED on keeping the cable “just in case someone came over and wanted to watch TV” (she never has visitors). My mother is putting a lot of priority in the opinion of others, even when they don’t have the money for it (but then, she cannot be trusted with money period). I would rather spend money traveling, and beyond my computer I own nothing worth more than $250 – and while I am below the poverty line, I can’t think of any real things I’d want to own even if I had a couple extra thousand dollars in hand.

  68. I love this article. This is a point that I’ve been trying to get across to many friends of mine that make fun of me because I “talk like a white girl” which I’ve started taking as a compliment. I currently work in a veterinary clinic where I have been for 6 years and have just started my own dog training business about a year ago. I’m a young, black, single mother that is determined to be successful. I’m constantly reading and learning about would like to complete a degree in either animal sciences or business management. At the moment I’m at a stand still with finding a house (rental), wanting to go back to college, working full time, and running my business. I’m penny pinching and still struggling. I’ve been raised in that world of poor people buying expensive things just to “show off” or “cheat the system” by not paying bills or manipulating. I’m determined to break the cycle. I will work hard and earn my success. I will do things right and teach my son that education is important. I’m trying but still not moving. Advice?

    1. Ashley, I’m impressed and proud of you. You asked for advice. It’s about choices. Choices on how you see yourself, what your priorities are, what your values are. Our family is Caucasian. If you suddenly popped into our lives you would think “Wow, they are rich!”. But being white doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard to get where you are in life. I grew up poor–but had a good father in the home. Hubby grew up even poorer and didn’t have a daddy. He had a succession of step-fathers–one that beat him landing the man in jail and my husband torn away from his mom and sisters and put in foster care. It’s taken us 40 years of work to get where we are now.

      I started working by cleaning college dorms, picking beans and strawberries, clerking in a floral shop and from there moved up into the business and financial world. My shoes were from K-mart. But I dressed as if I cared for myself. I walked or rode a bus everywhere for years before I could afford my first 2nd hand car. I gave my life to Christ as a child and I learned what HE thinks of me and how valuable I am to Him. When you know your own worth and value to the Creator of the universe you rely less and less on the opinions of others. I left a higher paying job than my husband had when we married so I could care for him and our home. Your jobs don’t come because you sport the right accessories but because you honor Him with diligent labor and rely on Him to guide you into the right places and open the doors He wants you to walk through because He has a good plan for your life.

      Hubby? Through hard work and commitment he became a Marine. We met and married after he mustered out and just before I turned 30. We were so poor in our early years that Christmas presents for our children were those offers (in those days) off the back of cold cereal boxes. We made the choice that we would have less income because I would stay home and raise our children instead of farming them out to someone else. I bought remnants of fabric and made clothing and toys for the children. He worked hard, studied on his GI bill and over the past 30 years he has advanced in his career in the high tech world. I shopped at Goodwill so we could afford to purchase work clothing for hubby at Macy’s or Penney’s. And by work clothing I don’t mean a Rolex to impress his co-workers, or a silk suit. I mean nice trousers and golf or button down dress shirts that he shops when the sales are on and hardly ever pays more than $30 for. I myself iron them so that he looks well put together–cared for. He carries himself with the bearing of a Marine who has conquered the Corps and knows his abilities, and the confidence of a man who knows he is forgiven and valued by God. He honors his employer by giving them his very best–they know they can count on him. He’s not gotten any job or contract because of his race or age or clothing, but because it is advantageous to the employer to hire him. He began as a hard and faithful worker and that reputation has followed him as he has continued to study and increase his value to current and potential employers. God’s grace + hard work + time.

      Before marriage and now through 30 years of it, we have honored the Lord with our finances. We tithe. That means we give back to Him 10% (because, really, it’s all His anyway and we just get to use it) and we give offerings. And God honors our finances and helps things stretch further. We’ve been to Hawaii five times. Because we are rich? No, because hubby’s job was many individual contracts over the last 7 years that kept him on the other side of the continent flying home only *every other weekend*. It was a sacrifice for all of us, but it was a JOB when other men had no job. The hotel points and air miles that paid for virtually everything were gracious gifts from God that we then used to spend time reconnecting in a lovely place. And even then we weren’t able to do it until our 25th anniversary. That’s where the ‘time’ part of the equation in the above paragraph comes in.

      Do we have no financial challenges? No. Before we were able to buy the house we are now in the old (low class, mostly repaired) house in Oregon was on the market–and we had squatters. It took 3 years to sell while we were paying the mortgage there and rent up here. We lost all our stock and investments (Thanks, Bernie) and had to eat our 401K during the downturn. As a high tech military contractor his job was part of the gov’t cutbacks and we had to eat (or pay house payments from) the money stuck away for taxes. Ouch. The house has been incompletely painedt for 7 years now. We don’t own boats or jet skis or a summer house. We have a lovely home that is ‘lived in’ and shows it with a deck that’s falling apart because money to repair it goes for other more needful things. But we’ve never gone hungry. Rick works for a salary and I work to make sure that salary is spent wisely, but God is our source.

      Though a stay at home mom (and for many years a homeschooling mom) I dress well. Mama taught me that just because you are (or ‘were’ in my case now) poor, you don’t have to look like something the cat dragged in. People now are always commenting on how nice and professional I always look. They don’t know (except my girlfriends because we share stories of our bargains) that I STILL shop Goodwill to put together smashing looking outfits. I. look. good. Classy. Overweight but attractive; I make sure I take care of myself because that reflects my own self-image. If I don’t respect myself and show it, neither will anyone else. But you won’t see me or hubby with ‘status’ clothing or accessories.

      I am 60 in 5 weeks and I drive a Lexus. It is my first new car EVER. It’s now 10 years old and I won’t be turning it in for anything else. We bought it not for status but for reliability–we couldn’t afford monthly installments AND pay monthly repair bills nor have me stranded and the kids when he was always working out of state. So we bought something high quality and safe for transporting children and now grandchildren. Hubby’s cars for work over the years have been new, but they have been very inexpensive vehicles.

      No problems? Please. We’ve had our share of months of unemployment and house payments put on credit cards. I live with chronic pain. Our eldest daughter had aggressive cancer while pregnant and with much prayer she and the baby survived. Now 7, that grandchild and our daughter live with us because cancer treatments are just as debilitating as cancer. Not what we’d planned for in this life, but praise God she’s still with us and He brought us to a house 15 years ago that was large enough to care for them when that unexpected time came in our lives.

      Ashley, hang in there. You sound like a very wise and diligent young woman. Jesus never promised that those who commit their lives to Him wouldn’t have problems, just that He’d always be there with us in those problems. Discover Him. Place your life in His hands and work with Him. Walk with Him. Find your worth in Him. Allow Him to direct your life opening the right employment doors and closing the wrong ones. But He can and will only do that when you belong to Him because He is a gentleman and doesn’t force Himself on anyone. God bless you.

  69. When I lived in NYC, one ofthe cruellest social hierarchies on Earth, I realized could wear a plain dark suit or dress, but that I needed to invest in an ostentatious designer handbag in order to secure the barest modicum of respect. I dropped $428 + tax on a large black Coach monogram purse. Within months, it landed me a job paying $9,000 more than my last one I’d had, so I would have to say it was a good investment. People are subject to all of the instinctive status ranking behavior of animals. Wishing they would be better than that doesn’t make it so. I still have that handbag and deploy it as needed.

  70. I understand what you’re trying to say, but, a lot of the time, the “swag” is completely off target from simply wanting a bit of respectability.

    – Buying a BMW and adding ghetto-fabulous rented wheels, rather than buying a respectable vehicle and caring for it is not respectable.
    – Over priced sneakers and loose threaded clothing is not respectable.
    – Buying ridiculous amounts of gaudy jewelry is not respectable.

    Pretending to be rich is not the same as being rich, and, it’s not about money, it is about mindset. A poor person in mind will always been a poor person. Think of all the poor kids who grew up to be multi millionaire athletes? Well, they usually blow it all within 5 years after they stop playing ball.

    Because they’re educated or miseducated.

  71. One word debunks this nonsense utterly:


    Do Asians go deep into debt buying fancy clothes and cars to buy success? No, they buy those things after they’ve slept on the floor for decades to become successful; and that’s why they usually are.

    What we have here is a deeply insecure person who has constructed a mass of rationalizations to carry ghetto behavior into mainstream society. The bunk she writes about how looking “presentable” isn’t enough proves as much. Yes, it IS enough, regardless of your skin color, if you have style, panache and dignity.

    You can blow $500 on a handbag, $2000 on an outfit and $25,000 on a Nissan. Or you can find a tasteful bag from Target or eBay or even Goodwill that most women and virtually all men will not distinguish from one that costs a hundred times more. Men are unbelievably bad at price-identifying women’s fashion – dressing like a Jewish or Asian yuppie, jeans, pea jacket, simple jewelry, maybe a hairband and leather boots never fails to make you look like a killer.

    No amount of made-up (and they are) anecdotes changes the reality that your prospective employer or admissions interviewer will not follow you deep into the parking garage or to that 15-minute meter two blocks down and deny you the job because you drive a well-kept used car and not a brand new Nissan.

    The author’s insecurity is indeed the legacy of classism and racism in this country. But in the here and now, the neurotic and self-destructive extremes to which you have taken this screwy way of thinking is what holds many young Blacks back – and not contemporary racism or classism, real though they may be.

    1. Asians isn’t a group, per se. Are you referring to south asians, cambodians, hmong, chinese, korean? Which generation? Because there is an entire body of literature about poverty among specific groups of various asian descent that refutes the model minority hypothesis advanced in this comment. You could try for references.

    2. Okay, clearly you have not been friends with many “asians”. My asian friends love status symbols – the first time i saw someone who had actually bought a coach wallet was my friend in highschool whose parents were from Taiwan.

  72. This was a great perspective. I got to it from a comment on a news story about ‘fronting’. It holds up in other cultures as well. There was a great article in the Economist’s year end issue in late 2013 about Cockney funerals. Cockneys are working class white people on the East End of London, people who lived their entire lives on the periphery of great wealth and privilege but have very little of it themselves. As the author of that piece notes, they also ‘have tastes beyond their means’, and this includes their funerals, which are lavish and can cost many thousands. People save up for their own funerals for years, so they can be carried to the cemetery in flower-dedecked cason drawn by 6 horses, even though they were, say, a construction laborer or store clerk in life. But it is important, to the very end, to show the world you were just as respectable as those who you worked for, and there’s this sense that you convey that through consumer goods. Fascinating.

    1. Thanks for that cockney reference. I saw a great document (and of course Eliza Doolittle) on cockney culture once. I see similar processes in reality shows like the one about roma weddings and the like. There is a lot to be said about the shared social location relative to hegemonic cultures that produces a demonstrative counter-response.

  73. my name is Paulina I’m a mother of three children ages 5 to 7 and 21 months 2 girls and 1 boy and I’m asking for help with closings shoes school supplies Furniture anything that you could give me it would be nice kids only have one income um and its only seven hundred and two dollars a month and its very hard if you could help me email me or something that would be nice I don’t have no transportation I’m house to house and my children like so hard um I will ask for somebody to help me please my email is please email me or look me up thank you

  74. I am 40 and semi retired by choice. I dropped out of a cheap community college and started a business which I sold at a profit. I did not go into debt to finance it. i worked 3 jobs at one point in my life. I started working at age 15 and finished 4th from the bottom of my H.S. class. I own 3 cars and have been debt free since age 24. My newest car is 8 yrs old and the oldest is 18 yrs with 220,000 miles. My upper middle class house I bought for a song in Fl 5 yrs ago fter the prices dropped 60-80%. Paid cash! My clothes are from Walmart or Christmas presents. I spend my time mostly on the beach while most people pay tolls to go to work to make a corporation money. Fuck the college professor b.s. Start a business and work hard. Delay instant gratification. Although I could not get a date in h.S. and was too busy working in my 20’s-30’s. Now I buy the 20 yr old blondes and wear whatever I want. I am even eligible for medicaid since my money is primarily in real estate. Freedom is power motherfuckers! There is no substitute! Oh and I am white was beaten up regularly at my ghetto h.S.

  75. A social science PhD is the ultimate poor person accessory. Big words are like fancy purses. Anyone who goes by “Dr” and fiercely competes for a job making $50k is still doing it wrong.

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