No matter the day, month, season, or year, there is one subject that conservatives love to rally over. What is it? How low-income people spend their money. Especially when that money comes in the form of government assistance, like EBT food stamps, subsidized housing, or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). People absolutely love to pontificate about whether poor folks should be able to buy soda and candy with food stamps, if able-bodied adults should need to do some form of community service in exchange for financial assistance, and, of course, the conspiracy theories about seeing someone with an iPhone or designer handbag or car using an EBT card in the checkout aisle.
This subject is unfortunately quite evergreen but feels particularly timely as on Monday, GOP Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, representing Wayne County, New York, argued that the state’s eviction moratorium contributed to the spread of the novel coronavirus. How, you might ask? As reported by the Times Union, according to Manktelow, people spent money that would otherwise go to rent on "large televisions, new cars, socializing." Unsurprisingly, he had no evidence to support this claim.
Manktelow is far from alone in spreading this sort of classist argument, however. People absolutely love to police how low-income folks spend their money or resources. How often, for example, do you hear gossip and judgments about what people allegedly see being purchased by someone using EBT? There are countless conspiracies out there that folks essentially blow their monthly food assistance on lobster, soda, and cakes. As someone who grew up on EBT, I know firsthand that isn’t the case. I also worked as a cashier at a supermarket for years; I didn’t witness that sort of spending even once, either.
In addition to not being true, it’s also important to recognize, though, that low-income folks deserve treats and enjoyment as anyone else. What some might see as a “splurge” or “unnecessary,” like desserts or a nice cut of meat or fish, might be for a child’s birthday party, an anniversary, a cultural or religious holiday, or simply a once in a while treat. The reality is, we can’t know the frequency or reason behind other people’s purchases because we’re standing behind them in line once. And that’s fine, because it’s no one’s business but theirs.
Countless articles give “advice” on how to cut spending habits to build wealth and shift out of poverty. You’ve likely heard the advice about making coffee at home, not eating so much avocado toast, or living at home for as long as you can. Even if well-intentioned, the advice is generally patronizing because it ignores the fundamental socioeconomic disparities that thrive in our capitalist culture. If you’re only making minimum wage, you cannot save up for a down payment on a house simply because you no longer buy avocados or lattes. If you’re facing a mountain of medical or personal debt, you can’t build up an emergency fund simply by purchasing produce that’s on sale.
So, why are strangers so invested in how low-income people spend their money? My personal guess is that people find it easier and more immediately satisfying to judge what’s closest to them. It’s easier to judge an individual person, or a collective group, rather than to judge the structures that keep people in these cycles of poverty. Telling a low-income person to make their own coffee at home, for example, feels like the quicker fix than trying to get elected officials to reform laws and regulations that make poverty a lifelong trap.
Anti-poor rhetoric has been around for a long, long time, and as we know, Ronald Reagan really lit an ongoing fire under it with his “welfare queen” fixation. That’s an element of this conversation that is tricky but important: Many people qualify for public assistance but don’t seek it out. Why? Shame. Where does that shame come from? Society. Sometimes judgments come from people who share poverty—or are close to it—and that can be steeped in deep self-loathing and criticism. Basically, “I’m not as bad as those poor people” or “I struggle but I don't accept hand-outs” mentalities.
All of that said, you can’t personal finance your way out of generational poverty and systemic oppression, but financial literacy can empower your choices and help you feel more autonomous and informed, especially for young people who may have access to credit opportunities for the first time as they turn 18. When we consider intergenerational poverty, too, making financial literacy attainable to everyone via public education also helps work toward systemic change.
But again, that’s about changing the big-picture structure. Not shaming people for buying a coffee with almond milk.