Poverty is more than an income measure or financial disadvantage. It is also a state of mind, a feeling of anxiety, and it forms the perception that society has of individuals, and even the perception these individuals have of themselves. It is because of this that people living in poverty face so many limitations, ones that go beyond the mere size of their wallet. They experience a lot more stress and social pressure. Those who consider poor people to be lazy treat them as if they were inferior, and, in turn, poor people try to mask their poverty in order to receive better treatment.
While undertaking an architectural field study of the slums of Shanghai in 2009, what struck me more than the poor infrastructure was the residents’ pride. Young women walked by with brand-name purses and deep green jade bracelets, while men drove home to their shabby shacks with shiny scooters. Had I seen them in the downtown business district, I would have believed they belonged there.
Chinese urban society is in fact one of the most consumerist and superficial in the world. I have seen more people showing off iPhones here than I have anywhere in Europe. But it makes you wonder, if a family has three generations of family members sleeping in one room together, why do they choose to spend their money on big TVs or plastic surgery? In the words of Harvard professor Mullainathan, “You and I can be busy and we take a vacation from work. You can’t take a break from being poor. You can’t say, ‘Hey I’ve had enough of worrying about money, I’m just going to be rich for a couple of weeks until I’ve recovered’.” Vexed by financial worries and trying to avoid humiliation by their society, poor people might sometimes make financial decisions that don’t make sense at first glance. But if buying a big TV is just the thing that will help distract them from their troubles, they should be able to spend their money as they like.
In China, however, this masking of poverty has taken on new dimensions, particularly because of the judgemental nature of its urban elite society. Young girls from rural migrant families (as well as upper class Chinese women) cover themselves in whitening cream with the idea that looking more white makes them look less ‘peasantlike’ and thus more wealthy. Many women save up to undergo plastic surgery in order get accepted at well-paying jobs. People from rural areas living in the city are often looked down upon and disrespected, so they try to hide their background under expensive-looking clothes. Even the poorest apartment block will only parade expensive German cars in its parking lot, if any at all. This has a lot to do with the Chinese principle of mianzi (“face”), which dictates that an individual must retain respect by others and never be humiliated. But most of all, it has to do with the fact that poor people want to finally be taken seriously by the elite.
China is not the only country where people are trying to mask their poverty. Indian youth, for instance, consider it a status symbol to be a mall goer, but even those who can’t afford anything in the mall go just to enjoy the glamorous surroundings and free-airconditioning. In Mexico, people flock to the retail corporation Grupo Elektra to make seemingly reasonable purchases of shiny cars and luxuries on the basis of microcredit, which actually trap them in debt and high interest rates for years to come. Debt is the biggest enemy of the impoverished, yet the social pressure to appear wealthy often forces people to ignore this.
Simultaneously, the media and citizens of developed nations are so accustomed to the helpless, lazy “slumdog” that they don’t deem him capable of being anything else, and become judgemental when he spends money on a luxury rather than food. Perhaps if the elite stops judging the impoverished of society by their own standard, and tries to empathize with the psychological effects of financial pressure and uncertainty, they can better understand the financial decisions of the poor. Society, and poor people themselves, might realize that their lifestyles are actually more resourceful, that they do not often waste money on things that they don’t need, and that they have deep bonds with their family and neighbours which enrich their lives. Without experiencing so much external pressure to save face, poor people might be able to regain their self-respect and pursue more sustainable methods of evading poverty.
Do you know any examples of how people try to mask their status? Share your thoughts below.
Carolynn Look is a Research and Communications intern at INESAD.