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Alexis Vasquez-Morgan
Professor Malcolm Campbell
UWRT 1103
December 7, 2016

Poverty and Materialism in America: Not Everything is as it Seems


While reading this essay, I ask that you keep your mind open to the possibility that what
you have been taught as an American may not accurately represent what is happening in our
country. More than just the supposed lazy attitude of the poor, race and the influence of the
wealthy on political policy shape who lives below or near the poverty line and why. Money is
everything in the United States, and I do not say that lightly. Money runs the country both
politically and economically, and our belief in the American Dream has allowed us as citizens to
perpetuate poverty even though we have the means to fix it. Despite discussing racist tendencies
within our countrys systems, this essay is not intended to throw those who are considered
Caucasian under the bus. I only ask that the same realization I had made is made upon
completion of this piece, and I ask this of any person who reads this, no matter their race,
ethnicity, color, religion, political party, or the environment in which they were raised. In fact,
my own development of such a racially-charged topic only came after reading one of my
supporting sources. I do recognize that this is not something people often like to discuss, but it is
essential to acknowledge the issues in order to incite change. There are multiple factors that
merge together to form the history and the present atmosphere of the country we live in, and
although things have improved from the days when it was considered normal to own an actual
human being, we still have a ways to come to ensure equality for all, both racially and
economically.

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While it is true that white men within the country tend to have an upper hand in socioeconomic systems based on their skin color alone, money is a key factor in determining who has
power. We have recently discussed in my Intro to Sociology class, taught by Phil Rutledge, that
the stratification that exists within our social systems in this great ol US of A is heavily
influenced by wealthy white male money on policies that negatively affect people of color and
women, especially when these citizens are poor. But it is not only the direct interference of elite
wealth that has allowed poverty to prevail. Americans are socialized to believe that the American
Dream still exists, and that there is equal opportunity at every corner, but that is not the case. In
fact, the only socio-economic group still experiencing the structural upward mobility associated
with the Dream is that which possesses the top 20% of the countrys wealth. The rest of us--the
80%--have seen our incomes stagnate since 1972. Coupled with the rise of housing and health
care costs, it seems as though those who arent making millions will soon be worth nothing at all.
Still, it does not seem as though materialism has much to do with those in poverty, unless
they have spent their fortunes away or gambled it down the drain. Most people think of those
with the most money as the most materialistic, and that notion is not incorrect. In fact, the desire
for monetary gain and financial growth has led developers to plan and build hot new stores,
boutiques, and cafes within poorer communities as a way to bring in money, and this is not an
entirely bad thing. The growth that comes with a brand-spanking-new shopping center is
something any region can appreciate on multiple levels. This sort of development is observable
in big cities all over the country, with notable cases within our own communities around
Charlotte, including historically black neighborhoods like Cherry and Enderly Park. The clincher
is thatdevelopers never seem to be planning and building for existing residents, who may be
bought out or forced to leave due to rising house prices. According to Gwendolyn Gwenn in

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Block by Block, homes in Cherry are selling upwards of $600,000. Velvity Cherry, a current
home-owning resident of the neighborhood, told Gwenn how devastating it was to witness the
rental in which she grew up get demolished in order to build houses that dwarf the existing
historical homes. This is an issue when other neighborhoods are simultaneously undergoing
similar changes, leaving the displaced to squeeze into the only neighborhoods they can afford. It
is likely that most developers do not actively consider the results of their developmental actions
on residents well-being, comfort, or happiness, especially once the money starts flowing in. The
goal is to bring in whoever can afford to live in the newly-renovated homes or brand-spankingnew apartment and condominium complexes, whether or not they are existing residents. One of
the more significant social issues with these sorts of changes is that after being displaced, a sense
of community once fostered in a neighborhood is lost. As documented in Su Friedrichs Gut
Renovation, old residents may struggle to find a new place to live, and if offered affordable
housing in new developments, they may be treated like second class citizens, unable to use the
amenities, or even the front entrance. This entire process is an issue known as gentrification, and
it stems directly from the American ideal that newer and bigger is better, and those who cannot
afford it shall be tossed aside.
In fact, Americans are constantly stereotyped as being incredibly materialistic and
shallow, and it stems from the portrayal of fame and wealth on every screen across the nation.
With American children receiving their first cell phones at around age six (Boyd), and television
viewing at levels upwards of 5 hours on average per day (Harden), children especially are
more exposed to this mass media than ever before. Social media applications and television
programs--even those as innocuous as Disney shows--flaunt celebrities and familiar faces
wearing nice clothes and jewelry; driving expensive cars; living in large, well-decorated houses;

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and playing with the newest devices and game systems. To cement the idea that this is the
lifestyle everyone should strive to live, these iconic people are also depicted as well-liked
characters in television and movies. Along with that, commercials display the newest phones,
which fly out of factories every year like clockwork. (Therein lies an issue of planned
obsolescence, but that is for another discussion.) Children, and even adults, are influenced to
have the newest, nicest, cleanest things in order to seem more desirable and influential to the
outside world. Having stuff has always been a determiner of status, but American lifestyle
takes it to a level that has permeated our entire lives. Our infatuation with the material has
created issues within our society. Gambling, marrying for wealth, bullying, and feelings of
inadequacy or emptiness are all connected to our need for greed. One of the most significant
underlying issues with this is that poorer people are encouraged to buy stylist products that will
depreciate over time, like clothing, appliances, cars, and electronics. Their wealth will continue
to diminish as they spend already-tight money on stuff that will only end in a loss (while the rich
have learned to invest their money in property like homes, jewelry, and artwork)
While it can be simple to say, Im not like that, the truth is that we are easily influenced
by the media and our human desire to be liked. Because of their inexperience and naivety,
children and teenagers are the two age groups most significantly swayed toward an overzealous
regard for brand names and the elitism associated with many popular companies like The North
Face and Apple. Problems with media advertising to children worsen when socio-economic
status and race factor in. Studies by Chaplin, Hill, and John show that children and adolescents
within lower-income families tend to exhibit more detrimental effects of materialism than their
wealthier counterparts, including self-esteem issues and mental illness. Decreases in self-esteem
are compounded when the child is black or has darker skin. When viewing a webpage of Top

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Sexiest Models of 2016 from Models.com, any person is able to recognize the sheer lack of black
or darker-skinned models. Even those who are not European or white-American have
Eurocentric features, light skin, and straight hair. Unconsciously, little black girls are taught that
they are not the ideal standard. (My own personal experience with hair care products featuring
straight-haired models supports this.) The severity of these effects of self-esteem depends on
household income and home life. Because parents in lower-income families tend to spend more
time working and dealing with stress than their wealthier counterparts, they lack the
opportunities to uplift their children to love themselves despite what media promotes. In fact, the
parents may have their own esteem issues that stem from a similar childhood. These factors add
stress to the already demanding period of youthhood self-growth. Studies reported in Chaplin,
Hill, and Johns Poverty and Materialism say that adolescents between ages 12 and 13 have the
highest levels of materialism compared to 16-18 year olds and those younger than 11. This,
according to MedicineNet.com, falls within the age period for both male and female puberty, a
time that has made any tween wish for the master key to fame and success. When television
and applications like Instagram throw images of idols wearing name-brand sneakers and using
sleek phones, it only makes sense that a child dealing with embarrassing biological changes
would be attracted to the idea of instant popularity via material gain. Further problems develop
when the entirety of the American middle school population becomes attached to the acquisition
of stuff, and those who cannot afford the display stand out and become targets for bullying or
ostracization. This is one of the many reasons children in low-income families are affected by
materialism in America.
Continuing, these children will latch onto the idea that new stuff is better, and unless
taught the value of hard work and self-growth through skill-learning and education, will carry

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those ideals into later adolescence and eventually adult life. This becomes a problem when it
helps to perpetuate societys ideas of homelessness being associated with worthlessness, past the
sense of simple monetary wealth. We look upon those who have less--or nothing at all--as if they
are beneath those who have been dealt the hand of success, because we like to think that our
system is one of exchange mobility, in which people move up the ladder due to their own
behaviors, similar to when someone works very hard on the job and their boss notices, rewarding
them with a promotion. This idea stems from our dominant American ideologies of capitalism,
meritocracy, and individualism. We believe anyone can achieve wealth so long as they try, and
that there is equal opportunity for everyone, but the truth is that racial and gender-based issues
hold back a large portion of the population from upward mobility. We also heavily stigmatize
welfare, so much so that 50% of those eligible do not even apply for it, yet many wealthy
businessmen use government assistance (which is welfare, by definition) to bail out their large
companies and correct financial mistakes they have made. There are also issues within our
American mindsets that those who are poor are lazy, although many in poverty were once
thriving middle- or working-class citizens. Outsourcing has caused a substantial loss of jobs in
our country, which has destroyed the United States ability to provide structural upward
mobility. The University of Michigans annual Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PSID
research) tells that poverty not an issue of lacking values and unsatisfactory work ethic, but more
so an issue of job loss. In fact, according to the PSID research, only 2 to 3% of the able-bodied
poor intend to live off welfare, despite apparently being lazy. (Rutledge)
Further issues surface when racist themes such as the ghetto hood-rat are connected
specifically to black people who live below the poverty line, or very near it. With black people
making up 25.8% of the impoverished population (U.S. Census Bureau), these notions of the

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uneducated black person spread to become stereotypical. Children who belong to families that
display stereotypical traits, by no decision of their own, are treated as lesser. So far, four
different yet connected factors could be affecting any given individual in this situation:
socioeconomic standing, materialism, displacement, and stereotypical judgement. This occurs as
a result of the teachings of society as a whole that material wealth determines status and
significance, and that anyone can achieve such a status. Unfortunately, the system is much more
complex than simply hitting the grindstone, andwith a sprinkling of historically-solidified racist
ideas, it is even harder for a person of color to move up through the ranks.
Doubling back onto the briefly-mentioned subject of education, it is important to address
the lack of quality instruction within the inner city, observably one of the most poverty-stricken
areas of any region. Continuing the theme that those with less are considered less, inner-city
schools receive significantly smaller amounts of money than wealthier suburb schools, with six
states leading the way with the largest funding gaps, according to a HuffingtonPost article
entitled, Public School Funding Unequal: State and Local School Finance Systems Perpetuate
Per-Student Spending Disparities. This article and another written by Gillian B. White for The
Atlantic mention the tendency for schools with higher populations of non-white students to
receive less funding based on race alone. Data scientist David Mosenkis, as reported by White,
says, At any given poverty level, districts that have a higher proportion of white students get
substantially higher funding than districts that have more minority students. Initially, the
discrepancy between funding for mostly-white and mostly-non-white schools fit the observable
nature of inner city schools to have higher black and Latino populations, but these studies are
showing, at least in states like Pennsylvania, that there may be underlying racial motives.

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This connects back to issues of materialism, and the necessity for education to combat the
naivety of young people and their tendency to be more materialistic than adults with life
experience. Briefly mentioned within the article Three Important Questions to Ask Your
Teenager, is that youth have lost the ability to recognize their own hard work toward exhausting
goals as valuable in of itself. This is the same for children and adolescents who regard their
worth only by what can be measured in things. Education and a personal connection to
intellectual growth, whether it be in school subjects or hobbies, are essential to protecting
children from the effects of materialism all around, no matter their socioeconomic standing. But
it is especially important for children who already experience hardship due to gentrification and
displacement, self-esteem loss, and the stress of not having their needs fulfilled (depending on
their poverty level). . This is a great reason to increase funding to inner-city schools. My
sociology professor lectures, however, that many of the politicians in office for personal gain
will likely ignore the issues of childhood poverty because children belong to a group of citizens
that cannot vote. If only the shocking percentage of children in poverty would encourage change.
That final statement ties into the question we often ask ourselves, Why do we as
Americans allow poverty to prevail? The truth is that our own values help to perpetuate the
reality that is poverty, especially among children. We allow ourselves to believe that the
impoverished, or those in lower-income brackets, are fat, lazy sloths who sit around and watch
TV, when in actuality, an assortment of people from all backgrounds experience the daily
struggle of living with barely enough money to support themselves. Underlying racism ingrained
by decades of slavery and de jure inequality create ideas in our heads that those who arent white
are also lazy and slovenly, unwilling to work for their piece of the American pie. Our
government policies are a result of our decisions as American people, and we are the reason such

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unbalanced conditions prevail. Next time you see a homeless person on the side of the road,
whether or not they are genuinely in a place of need, consider why they are there. We glorify the
lifestyles of the rich and famous, and all we want is to gain more, more, more. Even a panhandler
is only trying to make their way up the ladder. Think about how you look upon that person. Are
your thoughts negative? Perhaps this essay will incite a change in your perception of those who
have less, and that is all that can be asked.
It is apparent that multiple factors affect those who live near or below the poverty line,
and they all connect to form an experience unparalleled in middle- or upper-class families and
lifestyles. It is a vicious cycle for those who are considered black, especially, with issues ranging
from media under-representation, underfunded schools, and stereotypes egging on hardships
already faced by those in poverty. It is hard to set one plan in motion to fix these issues, but one
major step is acknowledging the problem and combatting the underlying racially-charged
mindsets that trap American society. Change has proven its presence in our countrys history,
and all that matters now is continuing awareness for the better.

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Works Cited
Boyd, Robert. "At What Age Does the Average American Get a Cellphone? Study Shows Its
Younger than Many Might Think." Fox13now.com. N.p., 10 Apr. 2015. Web. 09 Nov.
2016.
Conrad Stppler, Melissa, MD. "Puberty: Stages & Signs for Boys & Girls." MedicineNet.
MedicineNet, Inc., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
Glenn, Gwendolyn. "Block By Block: Gentrification Of Cherry Leaves Longtime Residents
Worried About Neighborhood." WFAE. WFAE, 28 May 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
Gut Renovation. Dir. Su Friedrich. 2012. 2012. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
Harden, Seth. "Television Watching Statistics." Statistic Brain. N.p., 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 09
Nov. 2016.
Kuczynski-Brown, Alex. "Public School Funding Unequal: State and Local School Finance
Systems Perpetuate Per-Student Spending Disparities." The Huffington Post.
TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
Mulligan, Michael. "The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager." The
Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
Nguyen Chaplin, Lan, Ronald Paul Hill, and Deborah Roedder John. "Poverty and Materialism:
A Look at Impoverished Versus Affluent Children. ResearchGate. Journal of Public
Policy & Marketing, Mar. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
Rutledge, Phil. Chapter 11: Social Class. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Lecture.
02 Dec 2016.
Top Sexiest Models. MODELS.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.

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U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State
and Place: 20072011 (2013): 1-2. Feb. 2013. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
White, Gillian B. "The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding." The Atlantic.
Atlantic Media Company, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.