This is a very interesting article by McMillan Cottom explaining why poor people seem to "waste" money buying certain luxury goods (especially clothes). Cottom, whose family experienced multigenerational poverty, explains that such purchases can serve important signaling functions that -- sometimes -- facilitate successful navigation of institutions which might allow for upward mobility. The parent who "looks" middle-class (and therefore looks like she knows how to raise a stink) might be more successful at insuring her school doesn't overlook the needs of her child. The job applicant who "looks" professional (and how often have we all gotten the advice of how important professional appearances are!) might be more likely to be picked out for a higher-status job with greater benefits. Even the supplicant seeking public benefits who "looks" like she knows how to navigate the bureaucratic maze may be more likely to get favorable attention from the various officials and functionaries whose discretionary judgment can make or break a case.
The essay is a useful corrective to the instinct of many to assume the irrationality of the poor -- particularly when they make choices that at first blush make no sense to us (the infamous "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" essay is a classic of the genre). Very frequently, choices that seem "bad" from the outside have a logic to them -- albeit often a logic born out of coercion and impossible choices -- that makes them quite sensible to persons actually living in the relevant circumstances. It's easy to say "joining a gang is a bad choice." It's harder to say that if not joining a gang means that the gang will gang-rape your sister, or beat you bloody every day before school. It's easy to say "the quick money from dealing drugs isn't worth the long-term consequences of ruining your future." It's harder to say that if your discounted utility is such that you can say "I might not live to be grown up. My life wasn't promised to me."
Put another way, if people aren't making what we deem to be good, pro-social choices, we can conclude either:
- They have malsocial preferences (they're "bad people" who don't have a good set of ends);
- They're irrational (their choices don't lead to their desired ends); or
- The incentive structures are wrong (their rational choices, in pursuit of reasonable ends, nonetheless don't yield pro-social results).
Frequently, we rush to explanations #1 and #2 -- ones which pathologize the poor (and other outgroups). But explanation #3 will frequently be more plausible (not to mention less degrading). And essays like this, which disturb the idea that poor people are simply stupid or diseased, can help point us towards other interventions that view the poor as we view ourselves -- as generally good, rational people who want a basically decent life and are trying as best they can, within the limits of their resources, to secure those ends.