The Consumer Culture of Poverty: Behavioral Research Findings and Their Implications in an Ethnographic Context

Article excerpt

In an industrial society groups are stratified in terms of the material assets or resources they control, the benefits and privileges they receive from these resources, the cultural experiences they have accumulated from historical and existing economic and political arrangements, and the influence they yield because of those arrangements. (Wilson, 1)

The devastation to the city of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina sent shock waves around the world. Vivid images of ruined homes, flooded streets, and crowded emergency shelters were broadcast widely, causing even developing nations in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa to send donations to US relief agencies. However Shelby Steele, writing in the St. Petersburg Times, states that "another kind of human wretchedness was on display. In the people traversing waist-deep water and languishing on rooftops were the markers of a deep and static poverty. The despair over the storm that was so evident in people's faces seemed to come out of an older despair, one that had always been there" (1).

Steele suggests that this tragic situation was exacerbated by the reactions of a largely impoverished citizenry who lacked the necessary coping skills to overcome such calamities. He comments further that "here was poverty with an element of surrender in it that seemed to confirm . . . that the modern world is beyond our reach" (1). As a consequence, the circumstances of the impoverished were considerably worsened because of "faulty" judgments about where and how to live, when to leave and where to go, and what to bring and how to act once they got there. Of course, more affluent persons had more and better options after evacuation, leaving their less affluent counterparts to scramble for the limited FEMA resources that were so badly managed and distributed.

These natural disasters often reveal the underbelly of society, with an emphasis on differences between haves and have-nots. Candidates for the causes of human misery vary from a lack of adequate funding for social or physical services to personal character weaknesses that lead to joblessness and poverty. The extant consumer-behavior literature provides some discussion of structural and individual explanations for poverty (e.g., Hill and Stamey), along with some historical perspectives (e.g., Hill, Hirschman, and Bauman). The purpose of this article is to bring a subset of this scholarship together in order to examine the concept and reality of the consumer culture of poverty as derived from ethnographic and qualitative investigations of various subpopulations of poor American consumers. The next section presents a literature review, followed by descriptions of the research that inform our paradigm. The consumer culture of poverty then is provided, and the article closes with implications for American cultural studies.

Consumer Culture

The concept of a consumer culture has historical roots in the writing of Thorstein Veblen and his use of "conspicuous consumption" to describe material possessions as status markers for the developing leisure class. It was the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to the modern culture of consumption through the widespread distribution of a broad range of consumer products at prices affordable to the expanding middle class. As a consequence, our values, aspirations, and behaviors moved away from citizenship, religion, or military rank for guidance to our standing in the material world: "It is partially through the use of goods and services that we [now] formulate social identities and display these identities" (Slater 31). Grant McCracken concurs with this perspective for postmodern society, and he suggests that consumer products represent signal objects for the self as well as others.

According to Sharon Zukin and Jennifer Maguire, this expansive view of consumer culture over time reveals an intimate connection between our sense of self and the ability to consume. …