Responding to TPM’s Poor Excuse to the Poors

Image via March Marcho /

Recently over at Talking Points Memo, an opinion piece titled, “Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods,” sought to set the record straight about, well, exactly what the title stated. “We hates us some poor people,” begins author Tressie McMillan Cottom; a disturbing start to a post that offers up not much more than an excuse to keep spending money you don’t have. As a former poor, the article is angering. Cottom’s advice is bad and based on life experiences that aren’t entirely applicable to the country we live in today. And while Cottom may prefer to believe that anyone not poor hates poor people, I’m going to offer some actual good advice to those people I supposedly hate.

To begin, Cottom explains her roots growing up in a poor, black family in the South. While she seems to indicate that her circumstances were, in part, due to the color of her family’s skin, her youth sounds an awful lot like my own. Talking “like white folks” was seen as a “privilege” by her family that supposedly helped them get ahead. Maybe it did, but certainly talking like a white person never helped my family get ahead. We were poor and we stayed poor, in large part, due to the mentality that Cottom seems to have taken with her. But more on that later.

After recounting her mother’s success fooling the “gatekeepers” by “dressing and speaking well,” Cottom goes on to explain how she navigated the waters of trying to survive as a poor.

… I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

In other words, Cottom believes she (and other poors) may be missing some opportunities (although she doesn’t have evidence) because the world is set up to limit access to not being poor. Hello, victim mentality! I, and …read more    

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