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"Poverty, Race and Consumerism,"

by Betsy Taylor July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

American culture is consumer culture: Disney, Sega, Nike. The commercial culture bombards us with messages that push us to define ourselves through image and possessions. This preoccupation with acquiring material possessions ultimately degrades rich and poor alike. But our collective fixation on blind consumption of over-marketed products often wreaks special havoc for those in low-income communities and exacerbates the growing gap between those who have and those who are left behind.

The consumer culture is not inherently evil. It fuels our economy and generates millions of jobs. It provides useful products and goods, many of which enhance our quality of life. Millions of Americans want and should obviously have more of these goods. Yet commercialism has become ubiquitous and excessive and now intrudes into nearly all areas of public and private life. Much of what is being marketed is not tied to quality of life but to status and image. Corporations now promote their products in public schools, ball parks, banks, doctors offices, train stations and airport terminals. We wear corporate logos to establish personal identity, and children sing commercial jingles to bond with friends at school. Excessive consumerism threatens us all, but it is especially oppressive for low-income people.

Low-income consumers are tar-geted by advertisers in pernicious ways. Impoverished African-American communities have been disproportionatelv saturated with alcohol and cigarette advertisements. The American Heart Association reports that billboards promoting tobacco products appear in African-American neighborhoods 4 to 5 times more often than in white communities. Former Washing-ton, D.C. Health Commissioner Reed Tuckson described the tobacco industry's marketing as "the subjugation of people of color through disease." Nike's appeal to urban youth is equally relentless and powerful. According to marketing data, low-income households spend a higher-than-average share of total spending on expen-sive athletic footwear. The pursuit of status goods promoted by corporate giants often jeopardizes the financial security of low-income families.

The psychic deprivation imposed by consumerism is equally harmful. When a society values its citizens primarily in terms of 4x4 vehicles and the square footage of housing, poor people lose. Millions fawn over Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, in part because of what they have accomplished, but perhaps even more because of the greatness of their wealth. Like our Puritan forebears, we seem to believe that wealth is a sign of divine favor and, conversely, that poverty reflects moral weakness. One only needs to look at today's political rhetoric to see that to be poor is to be lazy and undeserving in the eyes of many. Trying to compete in a consumer culture locks poor people into a contest they cannot win.

The consumer culture intensifies the economic and social isolation of low-income people while also damaging the earth. Americans are consuming resources and generating waste at an unprecedented rate. The long-term consequences of our consumption threaten the planet's survival, but for poor communities the threat is imminent. Sadly, poor communities are bearing the brunt of the consumer culture's lasting legacy: its waste. The mountains of solid, hazwith hazardous waste facilities. Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanic Americans live in a com-munity with one or more toxic waste sites. Most municipalities have sited their landfills and solid waste dumps m low-income neighborhoods.
Lastly, excessive consumerism adds to the debt that is crushing poor Americans. Some level of debt is no doubt necessary for survival in many poor families, but what especially harms poor people is the debt brought about by purchases of highly-marketed products of dubious real value. The pervasive "buy now, pay later" sales pitch lures many people into purchas-ing status goods such as expensive designer clothing and footwear. The materialistic definition of the Ameri-can dream promises contentment, community and coolness. In reality, it often breeds dissatisfaction, exhaus-tion and debt.
The notion that more is always bet-ter is being questioned by Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For some, the questioning revolves around quality of life and the desire to live more simply. For others, it is connected to concerns about the im-pact of consumption on the natural en-vironment. But increasingly, the de-bate hinges on a discussion of values. While nearly everyone seeks material
security and personal freedom, many have begun to question whether these core needs can be satisfied with the purchase of more stuff. According to a public opinion survey commissioned by the Merck Family Fund, 28% of those surveyed reported having taken a voluntary decrease in income some-time during the past five years in or-der to reduce stress and gain more balance in life. These downshifters include people from low- and moder-ate-income levels, but they are pre-dominantly members of the middle and upper middle class. They are read-ing books on simple living and seek-ing ways to unplug from the domi-nant culture.


Excessive consumerism is especially oppressive for Jo w-income people.


For low-income people, this dis-cussion has taken on a new urgency. The fight for a fairer distribution of the economic pie is crucial. Increas-ingly, advocates for the poor are call-ing for more material security but also less crass materialism. Real needs should be met, but marketing of arti-ficial needs should be resisted. The Coalition Against Uptown Cigarettes played an active role in forcing Ri. Reynolds to withdraw a tobacco prod-uct clearly targeted to a minority mar-ket. African American and Hispanic community and religious leaders have spoken out in Boston, Philadelphia. Baltimore, New York and elsewhere challenging racially-based marketing of harmful products. Unplug, a group of diverse young people in the San Francisco Bay area, is working to ban Channel One from public schools. This cable program offers free com-puter equipment to schools in poor areas in exchange for a mandatory daily television program complete with commercial advertising. The Center for a New American Dream, based in Burlington, Vermont. is try-ing to spark a national debate about consumerism and its harmful impact on our quality of life and the environ-ment.
At a recent anti-violence summit of 800 youth leaders sponsored by the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston, young people produced a play that critiqued consumerism. One par-ticipant, Elizabeth Miranda, spoke up after the play. "People, those sneak-ers that you paid $140 for won't change who you are. I don't care if Tommy, Calvin, Liz, Donna, Ralph, Kenneth or Perry is written on your clothes - that's not your name. I'm not saying don't buy what you like, but stop buying things that break you or make you do things that you shouldn't. Even though they keep shouting at us from all those ads to buy, buy, buy, we have to stop being so materialistic. Listen, when you die Tommy isn't going to speak with God and get you through those pearly gates. When you are broke and hun-gry, neither Liz nor Donna is going to spot you. When you're struggling in school, Calvin is not going to tutor you, because these people don't care about you. What they care about is making that cash."
In response to young people like Elizabeth, NBA basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon worked with Spaulding to develop a namesake shoe that sells for $35. "How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120?" he asks. "She can't. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kilt for them." Olajuwon has won praise from many leaders in the African-American community for championing a well-made, inexpensive consumer product.
Advocates for ftc poor should join with those who are seeking to rede-fine the American dream as one that is less materialistic and more human-centered. At the community level, or-ganizations working with low-income people could do more to help individu-als with financial planning, budget-ing and examination of how they get pressured into buying things they nei-ther want nor need. A new approach to teaching home economics should be designed to help young people ex-amine money, how to manage it and how to avoid becoming a prisoner to hazardous and toxic waste generated as a byproduct of excessive consumerism are found disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods. People of color are almost 50% more likely than white citizens to live in communities with hazardous waste facilities. Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanic Americans live in a community with one or more toxic waste sites. Most municipalities have sited their landfills and solid waste dumps in low-income neighborhoods.

Lastly, excessive consumerism adds to the debt that is crushing poor Americans. Some level of debt is no doubt necessary for survival in many poor families, but what especially harms poor people is the debt brought about by purchases of highly-marketed products of dubious real value. The pervasive "buy now, pay later" sales pitch lures many people into purchasing status goods such as expensive designer clothing and footwear. The materialistic definition of the American dream promises contentment, community and coolness. In reality, it often breeds dissatisfaction, exhaustion and debt.

The notion that more is always better is being questioned by Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For some, the questioning revolves around quality of life and the desire to live more simply. For others, it is connected to concerns about the impact of consumption on the natural environment. But increasingly, the debate hinges on a discussion of values. While nearly everyone seeks material
security and personal freedom, many have begun to question whether these core needs can be satisfied with the purchase of more stuff. According to a public opinion survey commissioned by the Merck Family Fund, 28% of those surveyed reported having taken a voluntary decrease in income sometime during the past five years in order to reduce stress and gain more balance in life. These downshifters include people from low- and moderate-income levels, but they are predominantly members of the middle and upper middle class. They are reading books on simple living and seeking ways to unplug from the dominant culture.

For low-income people, this discussion has taken on a new urgency. The fight for a fairer distribution of the economic pie is crucial. Increasingly, advocates for the poor are calling for more material security but also less crass materialism. Real needs should be met, but marketing of arti-icial needs should be resisted. The Coalition Against Uptown Cigarettes played an active role in forcing R. J. Reynolds to withdraw a tobacco product clearly targeted to a minority market. African American and Hispanic community and religious leaders have spoken out in Boston, Philadelphia. Baltimore, New York and elsewhere challenging racially-based marketing of harmful products. Unplug, a group of diverse young people in the San Francisco Bay area, is working to ban Channel One from public schools. This cable program offers free computer equipment to schools in poor areas in exchange for a mandatory daily television program complete with commercial advertising. The Center for a New American Dream, based in Burlington, Vermont. is trying to spark a national debate about consumerism and its harmful impact on our quality of life and the environment.

At a recent anti-violence summit of 800 youth leaders sponsored by the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston, young people produced a play that critiqued consumerism. One participant, Elizabeth Miranda, spoke up after the play. "People, those sneakers that you paid $140 for won't change who you are. I don't care if Tommy, Calvin, Liz, Donna, Ralph, Kenneth or Perry is written on your clothes - that's not your name. I'm not saying don't buy what you like, but stop buying things that break you or make you do things that you shouldn't. Even though they keep shouting at us from all those ads to buy, buy, buy, we have to stop being so materialistic. Listen, when you die Tommy isn't going to speak with God and get you through those pearly gates. When you are broke and hungry, neither Liz nor Donna is going to spot you. When you're struggling in school, Calvin is not going to tutor you, because these people don't care about you. What they care about is making that cash."

In response to young people like Elizabeth, NBA basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon worked with Spaulding to develop a namesake shoe that sells for $35. "How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120?" he asks. "She can't. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them." Olajuwon has won praise from many leaders in the African-American community for championing a well-made, inexpensive consumer product.

Advocates for ftc poor should join with those who are seeking to redefine the American dream as one that is less materialistic and more human-centered. At the community level, organizations working with low-income people could do more to help individuals with financial planning, budgeting and examination of how they get pressured into buying things they neither want nor need. A new approach to teaching home economics should be designed to help young people examine money, how to manage it and how to avoid becoming a prisoner to debt. People at all socioeconomic levels should be encouraged to turn off their televisions to block the narcotic drone of commercial messages that dominate daily life. Environmental groups must do more to help individuals, including those with low and moderate incomes, understand how consumer choices profoundly affect the planet.

Globally, the rampant consumer culture is pandemic. Our materialistic lifestyle is being marketed globally, and if corporate planners have their way, we will soon have a few billion more consumers devouring new products. We should promote efforts to dramatically raise the standard of living for people in developing nations, just as we should press to raise the standard of living of those in poverty here. But mass marketing of junk food, synthetic clothing, automobiles, soft drinks and the culture of "spend now, pay later" poses serious threats to the earth and its people. Citizens of less developed nations now face the same barrage of advertising, commercialism and mass marketing that low-income Americans must confront. They too are becoming saddled with debt, a sense of inferior status, manufactured wants and the mountains of hazardous waste resulting from mass consumption.

Challenging the consumer culture must be part of a progressive agenda, despite the complex politics of advocating for more material security but less commercialism. We need products that generate living wage jobs for all people, meet real needs and don't damage the environment. We don't need to spend more time driving, shopping, organizing stuff and feeling overwhelmed by junk. All people would benefit from a culture which encouraged them to sing, garden, volunteer, vote, play, imagine, invent, repair and talk more often with friends. As we analyze, organize and press for greater equity and material security for all Americans, let us also insist that individuals be valued for who they are and how they spend their time, not for what they wear, drive or own. The poor have much to gain from a society that values hard work and personal integrity, more than an accumulation of unnecessary and over-marketed products.

Betsy Taylor Betsy Taylor is Executive Director of the Merck Family Fund (6930 Carroll Ave., #500, Takoma Park, MD 20912, E-mail: .merck@aol.corn)and a board member of the Center for a New American Dream
 
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