Poverty, Shopping, and American Inequality

This American consumer doesn't believe in class. He knows that he runs fast enough, he'll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich. Some day...

Just keep on running, American consumers, because you’ll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich, some day…

Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush.  Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.

The fact that citizen=consumer in modern America only makes the recent census report on the state of the American economy all the more depressing. As TPM reports, while the overall health of the economy is apparently improving, the lingering question is, “improving for who?” And that’s where the future bodes ill for the poor and the already over-maxed, under-earning — but still consumption-crazed — middle class. Basically, the “economy” has been improving for those at the very top of the economic pyramid. But for everyone else, especially the poor and the now endangered species known as the middle class, income gains have been flat, if not outright regressing. The New York Times’ Neil Irwin sums up the problem nicely:

This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

But a good GDP doesn’t necessary translate to a good overall economic environment for the average American. “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise,” Irwin writes. The real measure of America’s economic health, he concludes, “is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their [Americans’] pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

The key line there is “what they can buy with that money,” because buying is a core aspect of American identity. The growing gap between GDP and the average American’s purchasing power is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is how it unveils the inherent dangers of associating American identity with that of conspicuous consumption. The link between citizenship and consumption in modern America can’t be overstated. Since the early twentieth century, Americans have associated the freedom to shop with the essence of freedom itself. At this point in history, people who’re born in the United States might technically be citizens, but if they aren’t working to buy large quantities of mass-produced crap, then they don’t really count as Americans.

Thus, linking citizenship to consumption has caused a circular problem in American culture: the vexing issue of income inequality has lessened more and more Americans’ purchasing power, but the fact that Americans can still buy anything at all is taken as evidence by some commentators — notable those on the Right — that poverty and income inequality are issues that simply don’t matter in America today. Think I’m kidding? Consider a 2011 article by Robert Rector, a malcontent who works for the National Review. Rector mocks the idea that poor Americans are actually poor simply because they might own TVs, cars, or have internet access. Likewise, oozing talk-radio boil Rush Limbaugh frequently cites Rector to argue that, “poverty in America isn’t poverty” because Americans have access to consumer goods like cell-phones, air-conditioning, and Chicken-McNuggets.

Granted, poverty is certainly relative depending on where you are in the world (being poor in India is far worse than being poor in America, for example), but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that conservatives actually give a damn about the material conditions of America’s poor (and, increasingly, its middle class). The right-wing touts the “poor people aren’t poor” meme as a way to dismiss the notion that the inequalities created by market capitalism should be acknowledged and addressed, period. To the Right, the blessings of American market citizenship bestow an unbelievable purchasing power on even the most lowly of citizens, who have the ability to buy stuff that would make a Third-World peasant salivate.

In July 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

In March 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

But as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann notes, this is a dodge to avoid addressing the REAL problem of growing income inequality. The availability of cheap goods misses the fact that prices are rising on essentials such as education, health-care, and child care. Weissmann calls this “the tension at the core of modern impoverishment.” In order to climb out of poverty in America, you need higher education, and if you have kids, and if you have to work full-time for ever-declining wages, or if you get chronically sick, you can kiss economic improvement goodbye. “While a high-definition television is nice, it won’t permanently improve your circumstances,” Weissmann writes, “and psychology has told us that the stress of financial instability…is part of what makes poverty such a horrible experience.”

Which brings us back to the historical trends that have conflated “citizen” and “consumer” to the point where right-wing concern-trolls can doubt the existence of poverty and brush off the need to question unfettered capitalism’s inequality-producing tendencies by simply saying that, “Americans can still buy stuff.” In her book A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America, historian Lizabeth Cohen describes how Post War American culture embraced the idea of the “purchaser as citizen” as a way of harmonizing patriotism with the need to boost the American economy after the twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II. For a while, the citizen-consumer ideal seemed to work, but in the wake of the Great Recession, the wheels have come off the spending bus and there aren’t any spares.

Of course, consumption has been an essential aspect of American identity since the earliest commercial transactions between European colonists and Native peoples, but modern consumer citizenship is far more total in its power to define pure ‘Muricaness. Cohen explains how the post-war era fully developed the idea of a “Consumer’s Republic” that, “entrusted the private mass consumption marketplace, supported by government resources, with delivering not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation.”* Equating consumerism with citizenship was all well-and-good to a point: after all, it was a GOOD thing for more Americans to have the ability to improve their material well-being, even it meant buying a bunch of junk on the side.

But a consumer republic only works if Americans have the ability to consume. And even if that ability could somehow be retained by the mythical free-market, conflating citizenship with consumerism runs the risk of equating the value of American life to buying Ed Hardy perfume at Target: it’s a pay-to-play model of national identity that says, “you’re not an American unless you’re a consuming American.” In a consumer’s republic, basic citizenship rights — like petitioning your government, voting, and, complaining about the growing influence of Big Money on American society — are all things that can be brushed aside as the whiny tantrums of people who should be thankful that they can own a TV.

This is why increasing income inequality in the American economy is such a troubling development. If American citizenship is reduced to the ability and means to go shopping, then the declining purchasing power of the average American becomes that much more tragic. Perhaps even worse, however, is the rise of a conservative political discourse that trivializes the experiences of poverty and broad-based economic anxiety. Equating citizenship with consumption cheapens the value of a small “r” republican society, in which the plight of average citizens should be synonymous with the plight of the nation. These days, we’re witnessing a perverse flipping of that ideal, as the success of the 1 percent is taken as evidence of an improving national economy even as most Americans continue to face an ever-increasing economic uncertainty. This is no way to run a nation, unless you want to run it into the ground.

* See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America (New York: Vintage, 2003), 13.

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4 Comments

  1. I don’t know how “citizen-consumership” became our national pass-time. If only we could replace it with shared meals, long walks and conversation like citizens of less consumer-driven countries. I find those things much more rewarding in the long term than a day at the mall.

    • Well, I think that we took something that can have real material benefits — market capitalism — and fetishized it to point where we made the idea of “choice” the be-all and end-all of freedom in the U.S. And I think you’re right: focusing on what matters in terms of human relationships would go a long way towards making the American rat-race more leisurely.

  2. You rip on the Right, but the Left is equally guilty in that they talk about the problem without offering real solutions. (Let be honest, no politician is in government to help people – regardless of party, they’ve been bought and sold by Big Business and Special Interest.) Those solutions that are proposed and implemented (generally) in actuality further weaken the middle class rather than strengthening it – blame whichever party you want since I blame them both.

    In short, if we are to turn around America’s economy, we will have to do what most American’s haven’t had to do since the Great Depression and World War II: sacrifice for the greater good.

    At least, that’s my opinion.

    • Well, I rip on the Right because they’re the prime movers of the “market-as-god” ideology. But you’re correct in that both parties are working on behalf of business, not people. Of course, the difference is that the “Right” is utterly synonymous with the Republican Party, but the “Left” is NOT synonymous with the Democratic Party (Bernie Sanders doesn’t count). In other words: conservatives in America have a political party, but liberals, well, don’t really. We can support the Democrats because we have no other option, but, as you point out, without a real, grass roots, left-populist movement, nothing will ever change. Thanks for reading!

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