Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Appalachian Princess Phone

Why do the poor spend more than the rich, on individual items?

When I was a kid, my parents got the National Geographic - before it became a Murdoch publication.  And I think it was in the July 1972 issue that they did an article about Appalachia.  It was one of those weepy pieces about how awful it was for people living in the hills of West Virginia, and had lots of photos of kids with dirt smeared on their faces, cowering in the corner of run-down shacks or sitting idly on stoops.

Of course, today, I would question the photographer about the posing of the kids and why they had dirt smeared on their faces.   I smell a Pulitzer!

In fact, in retrospect, it is interesting how magazines like National Geographic or Smithsonian could make even the Hamptons look gritty.  They seem to rejoice in showing people in their least forms of dignity.  But I guess that sells newspapers - or in this case, magazines.

Willam Gedney traveled to some of the poorest places on the earth to take pictures of poor people with their faces smeared with dirt.  He also went to Kentucky in 1964 and 1972 and took an awful lot of pictures of poor people doing "poor things", like fixing old cars or laying about.   I question whether this dirt-smeared kid smoking was a staged photo, as other images in the collection show people quite clean and in fact, bathing.  He also seemed to like taking pictures of young men with their shirts off.

What jumped out at me, at the time, even as a kid, was that one of the photos in the spread showed this wrinkled old woman, who looked like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies and she was sitting on the edge of an old brass bed (which people to day would pay a lot for) covered with an old hand-made quilt (ditto) with a forlorn expression on her face - as if they just reported another accident at the mill.

What was jarring about this dark, dreary, almost black-and-white photo was a brand-new pink princess telephone on the nightstand next to her bed.  Huh?  Was I missing something here?  We were supposed to feel sorry for this "poor person" who had the most expensive phone you could possibly get at the time?

You see, back then, you didn't own your own phone, but had to lease it from the phone company - in most cases.  They were just starting to let people buy phones, and you could buy a refurbished Bakelite telephone from the 1940's for $15 at Radio Shack.   But that was about it.  But for the most part, you leased the equipment from the telco (THE telco, Ma Bell) and you had a choice of several phones, ranging from a few dollars a month for a basic model, to maybe ten dollars a month or more for fancier models.

There was the basic dial wall or desk phone - which is what most people had.  If you wanted to pay extra, you might get your choice of color.  But the most expensive phone - which was like $15 a MONTH at the time, was the pink princess phone.  My Sister wanted one, so badly, and Dad said we couldn't afford such an extravagance.

At the time, I had explored adding a phone for my room, and we went out and bought the old Bakelite phone from Radio Shack (which I sold on eBay a couple of years ago) and hooked it up "illegally" myself.  It was the cheapest alternative.  But I was well aware of the official pricing for phones from the phone company, having researched the issue thoroughly.   And when I saw this picture in the National Geographic, even as a kid, I understood that this lady, who was begging malnutrition and poverty, had gone out and gotten the "bling" phone.

I raised this issue with my parents, and being bleeding-heart liberals, they felt sorry for the lady in the picture.  After all, it was Appalachia and those people were poor!  (Actually, they were just too stupid to leave, after the land gave out, like their smarter ancestors did).

"But Dad!" I said, "That's the phone Sister wanted that you said we couldn't afford!"

"Well," they said, "maybe that is their only luxury.  And it doesn't cost that much extra.  And, well, poor people don't know any better."

I didn't like the answer then, and I still don't today.  Because I think it is wrong on all counts.

The poor spend more on shit than most middle-class people and the wealthy.  No, really.   In terms of individual purchases, the poor are more likely to "upgrade" to better equipment and service levels, as well as buy extended warranties and other crap.  This is why they are poor.  The wealthier person puts money in the bank.

And in my life, I have seen this time and time again.   When I was younger, I was poorer and lived in poor areas - in cities and in the country.  And I saw firsthand how my neighbors coveted luxury goods, gadgets, bling, jewelry, and other trappings of wealth.    In their minds, wealth is all about the appearance of wealth, and if you have the goods, then you have the wealth.   So they seek out the goods.

So, you see more people wearing designer labels in the ghetto back then, than you did in suburbia.  Middle-class people (back then) had very plebeian tastes.  Most were saving their big guns for savings, their house, and college for the kids.   So wealth, in suburbia back then was measured not in what you owned, but in what you were invested in.

Yes, back then there was always a few jackalopes who spent it all in an attempt to display wealth ostentatiously.  And those sorts of folks were viewed as, well, ironically, poor.   The lady in Lake Forest who liked to show off her brand-new $500 Amana Touchmatic RadarRange (the only microwave within 2 square miles!) was not envied for her possession of consumer goods, but sort of pitied as the kind of person who would think that was "classy" and moreover, sort of white-trash nouveau-riche.

Today, this has changed for the middle class - and it is one reason the middle-class today is living "Paycheck-to-Paycheck" and underfunding their 401(k).

Our generation, or perhaps more accurately, the generation ahead of us, bought into the bling-is-good theory of life, and set out to accumulate as much as possible.  And the Yuppies set out to own the "best of everything" and of course, now most of them are flat broke and petitioning the government for a mortgage reduction and a bailout.

Today, middle-class people buy luxury cars.  Back in 1968, they bought Fords and Chevies.   Today, middle-class people buy gourmet kitchens with commercial-grade appliances and have spectacular baths.  Back then, you had an electric range and a Frigidaire.  Today, middle-class people have televisions, computers, cell phones, iPads, Pods, and Phones, and every manner of gaming gadget or whatever, for every member of the family.   Back in the day, you might have one television and a "Hi-Fi" set in the "family room" - where ironically, the family gathered to entertain themselves every evening.

Our values have changed, and changed dramatically.  We have gone from a nation of investors and savers, to a nation of "consumers".  And even our language and philosophy has changed to accommodate this.  We no longer call people "human beings" but "consumers" - as if their sole function in life was to earn and spend.  And we even characterize our economy as a "consumer economy" and watch, with bated breath, as to whether "consumer confidence" is up, because if we spend more, things are better.

It is quite an odd situation.

While having a lot of shit may, at first, appear to be more wealth, it is not.   Real wealth lies in being able to have control over your own life, and being able to exert control over others.  The really wealthy have money - and this means they can do what they want, and moreover, make you do things they want.   The middle-class and poor have a lot of shit which they think makes them wealthy, but actually makes them beholden to others and forced to do things they don't want to do.

And granted, not everyone can be wealthy enough to be totally independent from everyone else and in control of their own lives.  But for each thing you buy, you enslave yourself a little bit - and make yourself more vulnerable to economic conditions and the whims of others.

Maybe the extra cost of the Princess Phone wouldn't have made much of a difference to the poor lady in the National Geographic spread.  But then again, in 1972, an extra $10 or $20 a month meant a bag or two of groceries, or a 40-80 gallons of gas in your car.    And I suspect that this was not the only poor choice (in both senses of the word) that she was making in life.

It is part of the Culture of Poverty, I think, and this is why people say things like, "The Poor will always be with us" - because in any culture or society, there will always be some group that makes poor choices, bad decisions, and suffers from low-self-esteem.  And generally, these are folks who are not very bright and probably are destined to make bad choices.

But, if you read this far, then you are pretty bright, and there is no reason you should be making poor choices.  And yet today, so many of us in the middle-class do just that - choosing bling (apparent wealth) over real wealth.   And maybe this is part of the infantilization of America or something.  I don't know.

But I have less and less sympathy for people who make poor choices.