I was recently introduced to an interesting game developed by the Urban Ministries of Durham called Spent. Spent allows you, for just a little while, to step into the shoes of a person on the verge of having nothing. You’ve lost your house, your job, and all of your savings. You’re down to your last $1000 dollars, and you need to find a job, a place to live, and make it through a month as a working poor class individual. You have a child to support, and the game throws a lot of curveballs at you, as life does. It’s not fair, just as life as a working poor individual isn’t fair. You never end the month with an amount equal to when you started. Sometimes you end with under $100 to your name. Sometimes you end in $1300 of debt.
I played this game in a class. The reactions of my fellow classmates to this game were… disheartening, to say the least. Many of the freshmen I observed did not take this game seriously at all. After taking $800 in rent from our $1000, there was an uproar of laughing and cries of “WE’RE SCREWED ALREADY, WE’LL NEVER MAKE IT.” People had no idea what to do with this situation. They were theorizing about money that they weren’t going to make with the job they had chosen. They assumed that a waitressing job for a working poor person would definitely lead them to connections that would lead them into a middle class life. They were counting on handouts of free food from their potential workplace. The entire game trivialized the experience of working poor people to a really frustrating amount. The number of times I heard, “Well we only have to make it to the end of the month,” “Well we only have three more days,” “C’mon we’re almost done,” was infuriating. Because it seemed like my classmates didn’t understand that a lot of people don’t get to just walk away. That’s their entire life experience.
It was an eye-opening experience. Being an individual that grew up in this sort of situation, I had never really seen firsthand just how skewed the views middle class individuals had about the working poor could be. It seems to be the case that many people seem to genuinely think that the working poor aren’t really working nearly as hard as they could be. That they rely on handouts from their jobs, or from their friends, gaining things that they reasonably could work for but instead choosing to be lazy. They don’t seem to understand that working poor people are stretching themselves thin simply to stay housed and clothed. Or that they need to make decisions based on what is the most reasonable financially, not what they think is morally right or what they want to do. Think: “I cannot believe that she left her kids home alone when she went to work. Hire a babysitter!” When they do make a decision based on what they want to do, and they dig themselves into an even deeper hole in regard to debt, they’re ridiculed for that as well. Think: “Why are you wearing all those nice clothes? Why do you have that smartphone? Why do you have that car? You can’t afford to pay off your bills!”
Here’s where things become intensely racialized. In the article The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz details the many ways, through policy and prejudice, that we have prevented people of color from gaining status or wealth. We invest in white comfort. We make white the default, the good, the morally correct. We refuse to pass laws that make discrimination in financial situations illegal. We treat crimes more harshly for people of color (furthering the immorality that people of color apparently possess). When confronted with these policy issues, we turn the tables so that we focus on moral issues. We say that these people don’t deserve to have it better, because they’re not like us [the white middle class]. So people of color are backed into a corner. They’re forced into working poor status, because the circumstances that our society has thrust upon them doesn’t allow them much, or any, movement into other classes. People of color are looked at as having a different set of morals from whites… a set of morals that makes them undeserving… a set of morals that leaves them with no other place but underneath whites. Perhaps it isn’t simply due to culture as so many people argue. It is due to the way that working poor people lead extremely different lives from the lives of middle class people.
Seeing the way middle class students reacted to this game, the general opinion on poor people, especially of color, is further set into place as something that makes sense. Between racial and class differences, the sense of otherness middle class whites must feel toward working poor people of color is absolutely astounding.
I urge you to think about this the next time you hear whispers in the grocery store about the Hispanic woman with foodstamps being financially irresponsible for having an iPhone.