Why Do Poor People ‘Waste’ Money On Luxury Goods? – Talking Points Memo

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.

I totally get that it’s horrible and illegal to profile people. But still #SMFH over a not-filthy-rich person spending $2,500 on a handbag.

— Errol Louis (@errollouis) October 29, 2013

To be fair, this isn’t about Errol Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?

One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That’s how generational wealth happens where I’m from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.

We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn’t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk’s once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.

In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left my VP turned to me and said, “did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black.

The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand new BMW because she, “should treat herself” and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business. Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? That candidate maybe could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

McMillan Cottom is a Graduate Fellow at the Center for Poverty Research at UC-Davis. Find her work at , where an earlier version of this post was originally published, or follow her on Twitter @tressiemcphd.

“Stock Photo: New York – September 13: Model Walks The Runway At The Oscar De La Renta Spring/Summer 2012 Collection During New York Fashion Week On September 13, 2011 In New York City.” on Shutterstock.


New docs reveal the extent of Pelosi’s CODEL travel abuses, how much taxpayer money she spent

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s use of military aircraft came under scrutiny last week after President Donald Trump cancelled her congressional delegation trip to Belgium, Egypt, and Afghanistan.

Pelosi’s use of government aircraft is not new. In fact, documents obtained and released by government watchdog Judicial Watch last week reveal the extent to which Pelosi has used military aircraft in the past, costing taxpayers millions.

What are the details?

One trip in particular — to Milan, Rome, Naples, and Kiev — has received considerable scrutiny. The 2015 trip, from July 30 to Aug. 6, cost the Air Force $184,587.81, documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act show. Pelosi, along with several other Democratic members of Congress, made the trip with members of their families.

The exact purpose of the trip remains unclear. A Politico news story at the time alleged Pelosi’s congressional delegation “intended to underscore the U.S. commitment to security in that region.”

However, FOIA documents suggest the lawmakers treated the trip more like a vacation, even petitioning the Air Force for a specific flight clew for the duration of the trip, a laughable and arguably selfish request.

The Italy trip included Milan, Rome and Naples with visits to the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Duomo and viewing Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

The documents also show the Air Force’s negative response to a Pelosi staff request for a specific crew for Pelosi’s flight. An official notes that it: “would be a disastrous precedent to set even if it were possible.” The Air Force further points out: “Our ARC crews have plenty to balance already with military duties and their civilian employers.”

Anything else?

Indeed, Pelosi has a lengthy history of abusing special travel privileges afforded to lawmakers. In 2011, Judicial Watch exposed Pelosi’s rampant use of luxury Air Force jets to travel between Washington, D.C., and her congressional district in California, a 5-hour, 3,000 mile journey each direction.

In just a two-year period, Pelosi accumulated $2,100,744.59 worth of travel expenses, which included $101,429.14 for in-flight conveniences, such as food and alcohol.


Weeks Before Blockade, Qatar Denied Money to Kushner’s Firm

Perfecting the politics of personal profit.Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Jared Kushner’s father met with Qatar’s minister of finance last April, to solicit an investment in the family’s distressed asset at 666 Fifth Avenue, according to a new report from the Intercept.

The Qataris shot him down.

Weeks later, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates organized a blockade of Qatar. The Gulf monarchies claimed that this act of aggression was a response to Donald Trump’s call for the Arab world to crack down on terrorists — after taking in the president’s majestic sermon in Riyadh, the Saudis simply couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t take action to thwart Qatar’s covert financing of Islamist extremism.

In reality, the Saudis’ primary aim was to punish Doha for asserting its independence from Riyadh by, among other things, engaging with Iran and abetting Al Jazeera’s journalism. This was obvious to anyone familiar with the Saudis’ own affinity for (shamelessly) exporting jihadism — which is to say, anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Middle East politics.

And it was equally obvious that the United States had nothing to gain from a conflict between its Gulf allies. Qatar hosts one of America’s largest and most strategically important air bases in the Middle East. Any development that pushes Doha away from Riyadh pulls it toward Tehran. Thus, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — and virtually every other arm of the U.S. government — scrambled to nip the blockade in the bud.

But Jared Kushner was (reportedly) an exception. Donald Trump was more than happy to endorse the idea that his speech had moved mountains, and commended the Saudis for punishing Qatar — first on Twitter, and then during a press conference in the Rose Garden. According to contemporary reports, his son-in-law was one of the only White House advisers to approve of this stance.

Perhaps, Kushner’s idiosyncratic view of the blockade had nothing to do with Qatar’s rejection of his father. Maybe the senior White House adviser simply wanted to tell Trump what the latter wished to hear.

But the government of Qatar, for one, thinks otherwise. As reports:

Qatari government officials visiting the U.S. in late January and early February considered turning over to Mueller what they believe is evidence of efforts by their country’s Persian Gulf neighbors in coordination with Kushner to hurt their country, four people familiar with the matter said. The Qatari officials decided against cooperating with Mueller for now out of fear it would further strain the country’s relations with the White House, these people said.

It’s worth noting that the project the Qatari foreign minister refused to finance wasn’t just one more item in the Kushner family’s portfolio; it was Jared’s baby — his misbegotten, sickly, drowning baby.

In 2007, Jared Kushner decided that the real-estate market had nowhere to go but up. And so the 26-year-old mogul decided to plow $500 million of his family’s money — and $1.3 billion in borrowed capital — into purchasing 666 Fifth Avenue for twice the price it had previously sold for. Even if we’d somehow avoided a global financial crisis, this would have been a bad bet: Before the crash, when the building was almost fully occupied, it generated only about two-thirds of the revenue the Kushners needed to keep up with their debt payments.

After the crisis, however, things got really hairy. The Kushners were forced to sell off the building’s retail space to pay their non-mortgage debt on the building — and then to hand over nearly half of the office space to Vornado as part of a refinancing agreement with the real-estate giant.

The office space that the Kushners retained is worth less than its $1.2 billion mortgage — which is due early in 2019. If their company can’t find some new scheme for refinancing and redeveloping the property by then, Kushner will have cost his family a fortune.

And Jared really doesn’t want that to happen. In the months between his father-in-law’s election and inauguration, Kushner divided his time between organizing the transition, and seeking capital from (suddenly quite interested) investors aligned with foreign governments: During that period, Kushner attempt to secure a $400 million loan from the Chinese insurance firm Anbang, and a $500 million one from former Qatari prime minister and billionaire investor Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, also known as “HBJ.” Anbang pulled out once the deal attracted critical media scrutiny, and HBJ jumped ship when the Kushners failed to find a second major source of capital.

In those same weeks, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, head of the Kremlin-affiliated Vnesheconombank. The senior White House adviser has insisted that this meeting was strictly political; Gorkov maintains it was strictly business.

All of these interactions are currently being scrutinized by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

They have also, apparently, been studied by top government officials in the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico — all of whom have privately discussed strategies for exploiting Jared Kushner’s business interests for geopolitical gain, according to a report from the on Wednesday.

And if America’s allies and adversaries are looking for further (circumstantial) evidence that U.S. foreign policy might be for sale, the New York Times provided some this week, when it revealed that Kushner’s family company had won $500 million in financing last year from a pair of American firms right after their top executives had White House meetings with one Jared Kushner.

Maybe all of this looks worse than it is. But it looks like the president’s son-in-law worked to sour relations with a key U.S. ally in the Middle East — which has since drifted further into the orbit of a regime hostile to the United States — because it refused to bail out his family’s underwater real-estate investment.

Even if this is appearance is deceiving, why isn’t the mere semblance of such high corruption enough to bounce Kushner from the White House? Are Kushner’s personal skills really more valuable than his conflicts of interest are toxic? Is a real-estate heir who has no policy-making experience, background in geopolitics, or security clearance — but does have significant business interests in Israel — really such an ideal choice for brokering peace in the Middle East?

Kushner’s sole qualification for his senior White House position (beyond having been born and betrothed to the right people) is the business savvy that allowed him to avoid squandering his family’s enormous fortune — and if he doesn’t auction off American foreign policy for an emergency loan, he very well may have to delete that item from his résumé.


Trump’s Defunding Planned Parenthood of $50-60 Million. That Money May Go to Pregnancy Centers | LifeNews.com

Pro-life pregnancy centers looking to expand into women’s medical services soon may have some extra help, thanks to the Trump administration.

The administration’s changes to Title X family planning grants have angered the abortion chain Planned Parenthood, prompting a lawsuit, but they provide hope for life-affirming pregnancy centers. The abortion chain receives about $50 million to $60 million in Title X funds annually, but that could change if the new rules are upheld and other proposals are implemented.

Politico reports pro-life pregnancy centers soon may be competing with Planned Parenthood for those funds.

The report profiled Kathleen Eaton Bravo, founder of the Obria Group, a West Coast chain of pregnancy centers that applied for Title X grants this year.

Bravo said she wants her non-profit to be a life-affirming competitor of Planned Parenthood. Its 30 centers offer pregnancy resources, but many are expanding to provide medical services like prenatal care and STD testing/treatment as well, she said.

“I didn’t recreate the wheel,” Bravo said. “I’m using Planned Parenthood’s model, and it’s working.”

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Bravo’s work comes from the heart. She had an abortion 38 years ago, and deeply regrets taking her unborn child’s life, according to the report. She now works to help empower women to make better choices for themselves and their babies.

A Catholic, Bravo said the Obria centers do not provide artificial birth control, but they do teach methods of natural family planning. Obria programs also emphasize abstinence until marriage, she said.

According to the report:

The federal government rejected Obria this year for Title X family planning grants because, under the current rules, the Trump administration still requires grantees to include a provider that offers hormonal birth control. Obria plans to reapply by partnering with a health center that provides contraception, though not abortion. …

So far [pro-life pregnancy centers] haven’t gotten money from Title X — the $260 million federal family planning program — but that could change under the administration policy now being finalized.

Based in Orange County, Calif., the Obria Group is on the front lines of this trend. Bravo, the founder, calls her clinics a “holistic” and “comprehensive” alternative to Planned Parenthood.

“There’s a huge need for women’s health care, and everybody doesn’t have to do it the same way,” she told Politico.

Some already are criticizing the effort, though. NARAL, which calls itself “pro-choice,” has a long history of attacking non-profits that promote choices other than abortion.

“Their core is as a ‘fake’ women’s health center,” Amy Everitt of NARAL California told the news outlet.

Other abortion activists have criticized pro-life facilities for not being “comprehensive” health care providers because they refuse to provide or promote abortions. Killing unborn babies in abortions is not health care, but the abortion industry is trying to convince the public that it is.

Title X funds are supposed to be used to help low-income women and men receive birth control, cancer screenings and other health care services. While the tax money cannot be used to pay for abortions, it indirectly funds Planned Parenthood’s vast abortion business.

In May, the Trump administration published a new proposal for Title X that would prohibit Planned Parenthood and other abortion businesses from receiving any of those tax dollars unless they completely separate their abortion businesses from their taxpayer-funded services, The Washington Examiner reports. That could mean housing their family planning services in separate buildings with separate staff from their abortion businesses.

The “Protect Life Rule” has not gone into effect yet, but pro-life groups expressed hope that it will soon. Politico predicted it could happen in the “next month or so.”


Trump: Police Officers and Firefighters Make Too Much Money…Hits Them with Tax Penalty

We all know that the recently passed tax bill is likely the single worst piece of legislation in the history of American politics. You know it, I know it, Paul Ryan knows it, Donald Trump knows it. Well, Trump probably doesn’t, because, well, he’s delusional.

But it’s really, really bad. And historically unpopular, like the President whose name will forever be attached to it.

Maybe you aren’t totally convinced about how bad it is yet. So there’s this: Under this plan, a wealthy CEO can deduct a private jet, but a police officer cannot deduct his/her uniform.

“Yeah, but they’re the party of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and thanking everyone who ever wore a uniform for anything for their service!” you might say. And I have some oceanfront property in Idaho to sell you if you believe that.

Salon reports, Donald Trump often declares his support, even love, for police, firefighters and other first responders. That isn’t stopping him, however, from nicking their wallets in the new tax law that he is expected to sign in early January.

Buried in the hastily drafted tax bill’s more than 500 pages are provisions eliminating “miscellaneous” deductions taken by almost 28 million taxpayers in 2015. Those are costs you bore to support your job or an investment you own or to pay a professional to prepare your income tax return.

This year cops and other first responders can write off the costs of buying uniforms and dry cleaning them. But in 2018, cops who buy their uniforms or are required to buy their own guns and ammunition will no longer be able to deduct those costs as reasonable and necessary expenses to support their earning a paycheck, thanks to Trump and Congressional Republicans.

But that’s not all. Cops and anyone else who belongs to a union will no longer be allowed to deduct their union dues. People who must bear travel costs without reimbursement from their employers will just have to suck it up starting in January.

Add police officers, the military, teachers, nurses and first responders to the long, long list of hard working Americans that Donald Trump and the Republican party want to make suffer. And all to give the wealthiest among us more wealth.

Shameful.