The value of money means everything to some people and to others it means nothing. Now would you say money means nothing to poor or rich people? or a bit of both? We know money is printed on paper and if it were just a blank piece of paper it would mean nothing. The same goes for the numbers in your bank account. Had they been numbers on a computer game instead of your real bank account, would you care about them?
When the world came to a stand still with Covid the stock markets carried on, like nothing happened. Do we even relate to the FTSE100 or Dow Jones? When compared to life don’t many of us repress the fact that money is, well, meaningless. It’s how we feel when we snigger at that shallow person in the disaster film trying to collect material goods or money just as the world is ending. So then why do we think that being rich would be so great, or more importantly, that being poor is so bad? Why does having no money stress us out so much to the point of suicide when it is a matter of symbolic relations? Money is both real and not real. We have created our own cages. Can we break out?
Many believed that the coronavirus would significantly change the world. Maybe not but it has given people something to talk about. In fact, it slips into most conversations and has disrupted many elements of life. Like something else that is rife in the world but is sadly not talked about enough: Poverty.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown us what we can achieve together when it is necessary. Poverty is the biggest pandemic on earth, and it won’t stop until we address it. It’s a matter of political will and ideology.
Poverty comes in many forms. It is a broad term. The world over, there are people without homes, money, health care, clean water and jobs. 1% of the world’s wealthiest people own more than 50% of the world’s wealth and if we were to add up all the money in the world (roughly 250 trillion USD) and divide it between the world’s population (7.7 billion people) we would each get $32,500 each. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, 75% of the world’s population lives on less than that per year, and the gap between the richest and poorest is growing by the day (Köchel 2019). This has been and will continue to be exacerbated further by richer countries taking advantage of poorer nations to increase their profit margins. But whilst multinational companies exploit people from the global south, they are also finding ways to cut workers rights in richer nations and tear down any form of welfare state, such as the European austerity of the 2010’s, that has been fought for over the years. This causes in-work poverty.
In-work poverty is when people who are working still don’t have enough money to meet their family’s needs. Often too proud to talk about it, many families see their low wages as a personal failure rather than a societal one. The view that there is no alternative to our modern day markets makes people politically subdued and apathetic, instead turning their interests to other things. For many in the West there is no need to be political, instead many find it as a point of annoyance resorting to cynical views or concentrating on their individual worlds. Being politically active to make a change is often seen as naive or as a privilege. Whilst I agree with the latter, ‘naivety’ is an excuse not to challenge the status quo, or say you never knew any better. This is all well and good when livelihoods in your country appear stable, but like climate change, we shouldn’t leave it till it is too late and hope that ‘others’ will lead the way and do something about it. Our cynicism could end up killing us. Can you honestly say that poor people deserve to be poor? That it’s their fault? Or that poorer nations are just unlucky and not as ‘advanced’ as the rest of the global north? But what do I mean by this? We are all poor but our society is set up so that it stops us from admitting it or caring about others. Or even worse, justifying others’ poverty. We are not kept naive, but we act as if we are; we act as if there is nothing we can do and sadly some people do think some people deserve to be poor.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in February 2020 that despite the growing employment rates in the UK, more families are being pulled into poverty. One in five adults lives in poverty, despite many having a job. The reasons for this are lack of access to working hours, increasing home costs and limited access to childcare along with transport issues. They conclude that increasing the number of jobs and hourly pay is no substitute for a weakened social security system. (Inman 2020)
Being from a poor background is stressful, it stacks the odds against you before you are even born, but also having no money can put stress on anyone. If you haven’t been able to pay your bills at the end of the month, struggled for cash or had your mobile phone cut off, you will know what I mean. Many of us will face the prospect of having no money at some point, whether that is in the long or short term. Those that don’t are lucky. Whilst workers’ situations in rich countries are not comparable with people being exploited in Bangladesh and various other countries in Africa, Asia and South America, they have something in common: being paid just enough (but often below) to maintain a standard of living that is acceptable in their country.
The old notions of working, middle-and upper class still survive, just not in the stereotypes in which we used to perceive them. In the UK’s largest class survey, carried out by the BBC and sociologists from Manchester University, they distinguish between seven classes for the modern age. However, I’m not going to talk about them, mainly as I don’t agree with them, I want to talk about the three forms of capital that help distinguish between them.
Capital, in this context, is better thought of as a person’s access to resources. Social, cultural, and economic resources are used to define the new seven classes. These are the basic principles of the theory put together in the 1970s by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
Social resources include what groups you are part of and who you know (or better put, who your parents and friends know). Basically, the amount of social contacts that you have, and what circles you mix in all increase your social capital. Are you friends with lawyers or their secretaries? or maybe even their cleaners or bosses? This determines the social aspect of your class.
Going to university, speaking more than one language, dressing attractively and being able to speak in a correct tone when the audience warrants it. These factors all make up our cultural resources. Other things might include what music you like; what sports you play; where and what you drink when you go out; your taste in food, art, literature; how you present yourself and what sort of holidays you go on. These things can accumulate or change over time however, the higher up we start on the cultural ladder, the more points we can collect.
Cultural and social capital have morphed considerably over the past 50 years. Many would put this down to the internet, and whilst it is a game changer there are many reasons. From people ‘collecting experiences’ to cheaper travel, LinkedIn and fast fashion, judging someone by either their social contacts or by how ‘cultured’ they are, is not representative of a person’s overall class. Everything has to be taken into account if you are trying to place someone on the meritocratic scale.
Economic resources are a different matter. Social backgrounds exist but you can transform your future with education; being in the right place at the right time; luck; your upbringing; talent; making the right friends or even by marrying above your own social class. But, lack of access to economic resources makes life harder the less you have of it.
We often get success stories of professional footballers, politicians, writers and CEO’s thrown at us when we challenge class narratives. These ‘prophets of capital‘ like Opera Winfrey are meant to be an example to all of us that we can ‘make it if we try’. Reinforcing the belief that people deserve to be poor or that people deserve their wealth.
The stories that society doesn’t tell are the tales of the thousands more people that don’t fulfil their own dreams. Now, many that don’t make it big can still come to think of themselves as middle class but are they really? or have the poorer people had a harder time and less opportunities? It is easy to pick individual cases and try to use these as representative of a whole class, but that is the poverty of small sample sizes. That said, how common is it for people to move class? Whilst we may think it is the norm, what if it isn’t. Just because a few people have moved it doesn’t mean we all will. Meritocracy probably doesn’t work as well, or as fairly, as we like to think.
If your parents have little money; you can’t magic it out of thin air. Then even if you do with a credit card, you have to pay it back at some point. Being economically poor can affect everyone no matter what class they are from. But chances are if you don’t have access to money, that you aren’t from an upper class background.
I lived paycheck to paycheck at the start of my adult life, sometimes I bridged the gaps between with loans and credit cards. Not because I was from an extremely poor background ̶̶ we weren’t mega rich either ̶̶ but because I wanted money to gave me that feeling of transcending my class position for a brief time. This is in the era of ‘everyone being middle class now’, reality TV and being a chav was not desirable. I thought money would give me access to the social and cultural status I lacked at that age because, like many, I was stuck in a dead-end job and saw no hope in opportunities open to me.
Growing up pre-2008, I had easy access to credit and no access to common sense. I had never learnt to manage money and the whole culture around at that time was live to spend. I ended up hiding my debts from the people I knew. I got my first loan at 18 and had many credit cards throughout my early twenties. It paid for my social life and passing interests. Like many people, socialising and buying things was my way to escape the stress of my life. I was coming up with a new scheme to pay it off every time I swiped the credit card through the machine to pay for the weekend. I never had much luck accruing social capital, so I made up for this by buying it, or buying the illusion of it. “Another round of drinks and one for you gorgeous”. As for cultural capital I am still making up for it now. My collection of unread books will testify to that.
Here Lacan’s theory of the Ideal-I (taken from Heidegger’s thrown projection geworfener Entwurf but incorporated into psychoanalysis) can explain the phenomenon of hyper metricotracy in a postmodern world. With the flattening of culture, the tool of the internet to make social contacts and the demonisation of being poor, where the association is often made to being a chav– the modern day equivalent of the lupin-proletariat– it has now become possible for people to transcend their class status socially and culturally without having to do much other than get things on credit. Is this a bad thing? On the one hand, no. Giving people access to material goods and services that lets them live a better life, lets them give their kids an education, and improves quality of life, is a good thing. However, as with most things there are negative consequences. As David Graeber points out, debt has long been around, even before money and barter, and has often been used to exclude and control those that are indebted, even leading to violence. Debt, although around before capitalism, has helped keep the system afloat and helped create the illusion of the middle class and progress in the West (Graeber 2011). Could material improvements have happened without it?
The easy access to cultural capital and the fetishisation of brands and status that such things bring, has led to an increase in competition between people in the same class. This has increased an awareness of our outer-selves and how we are perceived by others. This is where we see an increase in anxiety which pushes competition.
Lacan claims that we project an objectified version of ourselves into the future. This version appears as an object; a complete version of our current selves. A version of us that does not feel like something is missing; and does not desire to be anything more than it already is. We strive to become this shell but can never reach it. We are always projecting further and desiring something else that will make us whole (Fink 1997). The feeling of buyer’s remorse kicks in here. I need the leather jacket to go with the motorbike I just bought as the image is not complete. Social media becomes interesting here but that is for another essay.
I was very much a neoliberal child. I grew up in the New Labour era under the guise of progressive neoliberalism. Whilst I continue to fight back against my liberal outlook, I still catch myself acting in an individualistic manner and I see this in other millennials. We can see this in all areas of society, even in left-wing politics. Rather than critique arguments, they attack the person as if their past decisions were representative of their moral worth, or more so, it becomes a reflection of how the attacker is morally superior. This is only a small section of the liberal-left, yet we see it in the national conversation when celebrities try to do good things and get harangued by the media and on social media for trying to make a difference. They are often scolded for how much money they have or past things that they have done which are less than perfect. Or, in many cases, even for the colour of their skin, sexuality or gender. This is the other side of the coin when it comes to competition and a cynical nothing can change attitude.
The need for approval, competitive nature and the parade of achievements and capital. These are all hallmarks of capitalist societies. In fact the more income inequality there is, the higher the rates of social anxiety all the way up the class spectrum. Social anxiety has become normalised. The scripture of meritocracy and the need to gain capital in all forms has made several generations, above and below me, lack something that we all need a bit more of: empathy and solidarity. Challenging this ideology within ourselves and in society is needed. Poverty, or lack of types of capital, are not things that are discussed in our society because we are anxious about how others will judge us. This is why I hid my debts. As you can imagine, I became depressed.
During lockdown I reflected on this and some feelings returned. Whilst I am lucky to have money and a place to live, unlike others, some of my past feelings of anxiety and stress came rushing back. The feeling of lack of control, hopelessness and helplessness just to name a few. Experiencing poverty shapes your outlook on life. It affects your relationships with people; your spending habits; how you value money and ultimately how you value yourself. This is the dialectical move of seeing ourselves as objects through the gaze of others. Not everyone becomes a depressed leftie like me and wants the world to change, for some the opposite happens. They become fully absorbed into the message of neoliberalism and reinforce the idea that poor people deserve to be poor. Obviously this is on a spectrum, but popular ideas, which appear to be based on reason, can quickly change. After all, wasn’t it normal at one point to think of white people as being superior to black people (yes, some morons still think this)
Status anxiety is fearing how people will judge you and also seeing yourself in the eyes of others. In our position-obsessed society, people are increasingly attributing their own worth, and that of others, depending on the amount of cash, and the value of the material goods they own. This has increased under our current ideology. It has become more than competition; it has become part of everyday life. Rates of hyper-individualism and status anxiety go hand-in-hand with income inequality. In countries with a bigger difference between the richest and poorest in society, status anxiety affects people more. Furthermore, it is not only the poor that suffer from it but it spreads through all classes in society, thus making social cohesion that bit harder (Pickett and Wilkinson 2019).
Having a lack of cash and having to tell your friends that you cannot afford to do something makes us feel terrible. Most people make up excuses, which deepens the sense of failure. Learning to say no can take some longer than others. Some don’t learn at all. Jobs that many assumed were secure in the past are now looking like less of a sure thing. That dream has been crushed for some. Whilst governments will help, it won’t be everything. Being unsure if you will have a paycheck at the end of the month, or even if you do, not knowing how much it will be: This is the reality of being on a zero hours contract or being a small scale self-employed worker. Not having secure specific hours increases your stress levels. It is also the reason employment figures are going up, but in-work poverty is remaining stubbornly high (Inman 2020).
Mortgage/debt holidays, rent relaxation, furlough schemes and benefits will hopefully support and potentially cover us for the pandemic. However, calculating how you can navigate the system, what you are entitled to and how you can manage till your next paycheck, are the stresses that poor and in-working poor people struggle with daily.
Then there’s state bureaucracy. Calculating which bills you can and cannot pay, jumping through embarrassing hoops and dealing with faceless decision makers. All of this whilst managing what little finances you have, not knowing where it will come from, or how much your next payment will be. These feelings of lack of control and frustration have negative effects on people, more so if it is over a lengthy period.
The inability to plan long term makes you concentrate on the short term. This often leads to ‘bad’ decisions, and it will impact on an individual in the long term. Your mental capacity is exhausted by thinking in the short term, and sometimes people make decisions they may not normally have made if they had not been stressed. We have all made decisions when stressed, only to later regret them. Sleeping with our ex, buying a bright green coat or going to Burger King rather than KFC. Now imagine having to decide between feeding yourself or your kids, whether to pay your friends money you owe them or your TV bill, or if you should leave your relationship. Like with the internet, humans only have so much bandwidth. If you are poor or in-working poor, it’s hard to explain to yourself, let alone to others, why you made certain choices. Rich or poor, we will all make stupid decisions during this lockdown because of the prolonged stress of the situation. Poor and in-working poor people have the stress of making hard decisions every day. Sometimes they have a terrible outcome, at points they feel right at the moment, and other times ‘it’s just like that’. Your ability to make choices, and the stress you are under all affect what decisions you make.
Studies have now shown, I can vouch for this from experience, that if you are stressed about money, your mental capacity to decide is different. You plan short term because that is where the stress is. The here and now. Your mental ability to plan for the long term is non-existent because you are too stressed thinking about that moment in time. It shows financial problems put a burden on the individual. The difference is 13 IQ points, equivalent to an entire night’s sleep. Or the difference between an alcoholic adult and a normal adult. Not that people with lower IQs end up poor, it’s the stress of poverty that leads to perceived poor decisions (Mani et al. 2013).
It affects everyone, even children. Scientists have known for years that children growing up in poorer households do worse at school, have lower levels of cognitive functioning, and are likely to develop emotional problems. However, they could not tell us why.
Further studies comparing children from families, with different levels of economic capital, showed that children from poorer backgrounds developed differences in their brain structure. These structures were more evident in areas such as decision-making and self-control. The studies also showed access to nurturing parents, and access to books, musical instruments, and trips (essentially cultural capital) lightened the influence that economic poverty would have on the children’s development. This is easier to provide for your child the more access you have to economic resources. Books don’t take precedence over food and school trips don’t pay for themselves (Stallen et al. 2017).
This shows that neoliberalism’s core belief, that people will do what is best for them economically, is bullshit. Multiple studies show that often people will show evidence of behaviour that is not driven by self interests but out of a willingness to work with others or by their cognitive biases. Of course incentivising people, whether that be financially or with an award, can work but to base a societal system on this way of thinking is dangerous (Effectiviology, n.d.). Instead of addressing these problems it puts the responsibility on the person and fails to address the structural injustices that disproportionately affect the working class, minorities and females. The ideological state apparatus reinforces the idea of individual responsibility over societal. Thereby, when children ask their parents why there is homelessness, some adults respond with tales of irresponsibility and threats that it could happen to anyone that is not willing to work hard. Others just look away. Yet as we have seen in several countries during the pandemic, the state can manoeuvre great swathes of services to address problems faced by the community. It just chooses not to. Until this is challenged, and it is being done in some places, then we cannot change our society.
People with access to economic resources like giving advice to people who are worse off. They see it as easy and don’t see the stress. Many see it as a lack of character and cannot understand why the person ‘can’t manage’, to them decisions seem like common sense. Often this lecture ends in some form of shallow “if I was you” comment.
The same studies above show that financial programs help poor people. It gives them more room to think and that way they don’t have the associated problems listed above. This is one argument for Universal Basic Income (UBI), the system where everyone has a guaranteed form of income. Who knows, with the way the economy is going we may even get it. UBI will not solve all our problems, it may make them drag out longer as the rich northern countries will continue to exploit poorer countries thus keeping alive the fantasy of who is deserving of a good life. Universal basic services are, for me, more realistic and more beneficial to society. This is essentially basic free services for everybody. Housing, utilities, public transport, healthcare, and education.
Experiencing poverty shapes your outlook on life, it affects your relationships with people, your spending habits, how you value money and ultimately how you value yourself. Yes, people have to take responsibility for their lives, and many will have to face challenges and overcome significant hurdles. However, this does not change the fact that some people have more access to more resources than others to achieve their goals. Piketty has shown that the world’s growing inequality is due partly to inheritance (Piketty 2014).
If you are poor, then talk about it, money should not be considered a taboo. We need to break the stigma, only then we can start to help each other. Get help. There will be people who have been here before, probably in a similar or worse situation than you. Money comes and goes (sometimes too quickly) just as the feeling of frustration and despair will disappear too. We need to challenge the idea that people who are poor and deserve to be.
The gap between the people with access to the resources, and those that must struggle without, is growing daily. Therefore, we must change the way our society sees poverty and reacts to it. To do this, we need to talk about it and help people in whatever way we can. These changes can come from the ballot box, mutual aid schemes, giving practical advice or helping out a friend. We can eradicate poverty in our generation if the will is there. Changing our ideology and economic base will only come with a full scale revolution. We cannot slowly tinker around the edges, because by the time we get somewhere looking like progress; capitalism will have another crash. As Rosa Luxemberg pointed out, reforms are always the first thing to be rolled back. It really is a time to decide between reform or revolution. Coronavirus has proven what we can achieve together during a pandemic: poverty is the biggest pandemic on earth, and it won’t stop until we address it.
I hope that the coronavirus pandemic does not make you poor, but should you experience any of the emotions and stresses I have talked about, remember that poor people deal with these every day of their lives, not just when the country is shut down. It is time we changed that.
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Effectiviology. n.d. “Homo Economicus: On the False Assumption of Perfect Rationality – Effectiviology.” Effectiviology. Accessed January 5, 2022. https://effectiviology.com/homo-economicus/.
Fink, Bruce. 1997. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. N.p.: Princeton University Press.
Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. N.p.: Melville House.
Inman, Phillip. 2020. “Number of people in poverty in working families hits record high.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/feb/07/uk-live-poverty-charity-joseph-rowntree-foundation.
Köchel, Pierre. 2019. “What If Money Was Equally Distributed?” INSH. https://insh.world/science/what-if-money-was-equally-distributed/.
Mani, Anandi, SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN, ELDAR SHAFIR, and JIAYING ZHAO. 2013. “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.” Science. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1238041.
Pickett, Kate, and Richard G. Wilkinson. 2019. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being. N.p.: Penguin Press.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. : Harvard University Press.
Stallen, Mirre, Antonia Violante, Heather Graci, Evan Nesterak, Pete Dyson, Rory Sutherland, Paul Bloom, and Elizabeth Weingarten. 2017. “Poverty and the Developing Brain.” Behavioral Scientist. https://behavioralscientist.org/can-neuroscientists-help-us-understand-fight-effects-childhood-poverty/.