Any society has a lot of cultural narratives that provide ready explanations for common phenomenon. These narratives, or commonsense explanations, are never questioned, never examined, taken for granted and become part of our stock of knowledge (to use Alfred Schutz’s formulation). It does not mean they are true. Their strength is not based on their truth value but on their embeddedness into our minds and culture and their resistance to examination.
“The happy poor argument is appealing as many richer people dislike feeling guilty about their relative wealth (Toynbee and Walker, 2008/2009, p.33). Denying that inequality is problematic, based on happiness being important and the poor being happy, offers a pretext for not thinking more deeply about the impacts of inequality.
Happiness clearly does matter. However, the notion that the poor are happy needs to be challenged. If anything, the evidence presented here suggests that the poor are not particularly happy. In any case, suffering adversity happily does not mean there are not serious problems to be addressed. As such, the argument that the poor are happy, and that this reduces responsibility to distribute resources more equally, should be treated with skepticism.”
But there is also narrative 2 – the poor are not really poor (often heard regarding the poor in the Global North. According to that argument (no link because the latest iteration comes from the Heritage Foundation, to which I am not linking… I have the same policy regarding the Huffington Post), if the poor do not live is abject destitution worthy of Dickensian novels, then, they are not really poor. That thesis is often sustained by listing the number of appliances and amenities that the poor have in wealthy societies. So, to have a refrigerator is to not be poor, or to have a cell phone or a computer means one is not poor.
Both narratives point to the same conclusion: anti-poverty and redistributive policies (that is, those that redistribute more equally as redistributive policies that redistribute upwards are perfectly ok) are unnecessary or unjustified. If the poor are happy with their lot, to interfere with anti-poverty programs will be detrimental and will break some sort of “natural” order (not true).
On the other hand, if the poor are not really poor because they have indoor plumbing, then, anti-poverty policies are clearly uncalled for, or worse, existing policies need to be scaled back because the poor are obviously enjoying life with a few amenities (not true either).
The third conclusion is that one should not feel bad about the plight of the poor. According to narrative 1, if the poor are happy with their lot, why should the rest of us feel bad? Narrative 1 reeks of Rousseau’s noble savages where the poor of the Global South are seen as closer to a “simpler” state where they appreciate little things more and don’t sweat the small stuff.
According to narrative 2, again, they are not poor enough that they don’t get a few extras and the same amenities as anyone else (never mind that these amenities might be of lower qualities, break down more often, or might be basic necessities, like cell phones when one looks for a job). It relieves society and the upper classes of any idea that some assistance is needed or at least a more egalitarian social structure.
This reminds me of a similar idea that was brought up in a conversation I had with a nurse regarding the large presence of Filippinas in nursing homes in our county. “They are naturally nurturing” said the nurse, so those kinds of jobs are perfect for them. It is a simple substitution of ethnicity and gender for class. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild have explained in their book, Global Woman, this rationale “nurturing is natural to them” is a convenient justification to extract gender enotional labor from other countries to be our nannies, nursing home personnel, etc. And who are we to prevent them from “doing what comes naturally“?
In any event, both narratives provide good culturally-approved and unquestioned obfuscation devices so that we don’t talk about this.
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