White America's Gwyneth Paltrow problem: How it's playing games with the lives of poor people

In Kansas, lawmakers are legislating away poor people's right to be happy—and this is best defense we can muster?

Published April 22, 2015 5:39PM (EDT)

Gwyneth Paltrow      (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
Gwyneth Paltrow (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Conservative disdain for the poor has reached new heights with the recent passage of the HOPE Act in Kansas earlier this month. This bill, signed into law by Governor Sam Brownback, prohibits those who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) from using funds to go to movies, to go swimming, to go theme parks, to gamble, to visit strip clubs or bars.

Many Americans fundamentally believe that one’s income bracket should determine one’s access to fun, pleasure, and entertainment. The resentment and the lack of empathy that undergirds most of the social policy that emerges from the right prove just how out-of-touch and mean-spirited such social policy is.

Should poor people not have the right to go swimming? Swimming is an important survival skill. There are large swaths of Black people who do not know how to swim because of long histories of segregated swimming pools and subpar swimming facilities in this country.

Swimming is also good exercise, and a way to provide cheap, low-tech fun. Just last summer, while visiting home, my mom and I took my two nephews to visit a downtown sprinkler system that the city had installed for children to come and play in. As we were sitting there, I realized that most of the children playing in the water were Black. And I remarked to my mother that I hoped the city did not shut down this free form of amusement for Black children, because of the negative associations of public services and activities with the Black and Brown poor. The right has thoroughly racialized the idea of public assistance so that whenever the term is used, Americans conjure distasteful images of an undeserving poor with their hands out, asking for aid that they don't deserve. Thus, public services that are used by disproportionate amounts of Black people are inevitably constructed as problem spaces that are unsafe. Those spaces becomes subject to hyper-regulation and often are done away with altogether.

I also wondered where all the white children were going swimming in the heat of a Louisiana summer. And I realized that many of those children had access to privately owned residential swimming pools and gyms, which many Black families simply cannot afford.

Essentially, the argument on the right is that poor families should have no fun, and that because parents cannot make ends meet without assistance, their children should have terrible childhoods. When these children, who have no productive places of play, then get into trouble, they will be unfairly criminalized. It’s a vicious and unnecessary cycle.

Apparently, struggling to keep a roof over one’s head, stay safe and healthy, eat well, and find good jobs or schools is not a sufficient enough struggle. Instead political conservatives want to create structural pathways to struggle and displeasure as a punishment for being poor. Rather than attend to the systemic causes of poverty, they remain firmly committed to a stance that has no political integrity: that poverty is caused by laziness – not by poor schools, over-criminalization, the outsourcing of jobs, and a lack of living wage. And lazy people, the thinking goes, don’t deserve any forms of pleasure. Moreover, their children should also be restricted from accessing pools and amusement parks, because clearly, the poor shouldn’t be having children to begin with.

Furthermore, the poor should not have sex either, because it is the sex that begets both pleasure and children. This is the only thinking that explains the clear moral policing involved in prohibiting those on public assistance from using their money for sexually-inflected forms of entertainment. The general view seems to be that poor people spend their days drinking, carousing, and having sex. Under a conservative view, the only people who deserve to have sex, have a drink, and a see a movie – that is, have a date night – are married, middle-class people, with jobs. While my feminist politic is pro-sex worker, I recognize that others may see using public money to gamble and visit strip clubs as a problem. But politicians who receive public salaries gamble and visit strip clubs, too. Moreover, the larger point is that human being should not be subject to governmental regulation of their private choices simply because they need help making ends meet. And the very right-wing politicians who decry the reach of government into private life, have no problem, in this instance, encroaching on the very private lives of poor people. This is hypocrisy.

So there you have it: The poor are not entitled to pleasure in any form, even the kind they can create with their own bodies.

Republicans apparently see ever more restrictive forms of public assistance as a motivator to get folks off of welfare and into jobs. Meanwhile, they are not creating more jobs, or better schools, or other pathways of access. Instead they have turned to infantilizing forms of moral policing as a form of social policy.

For instance, in the few states that have implemented drug testing of welfare recipients, they have roundly discovered those programs to be a waste of money because drug use by those on public aid is negligible. Still conservatives persist in believing a range of myths about poor people’s lives. This attempt to regulate the social activities of the poor is a wrongheaded attempt to control a structural problem that happens from the top-down by policing individuals from the bottom up.

Good liberals also make the same mistake of thinking the problem can be solved through individualist acts of consciousness-raising. Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, recently made headlines when she took the (ill-advised) food-stamp challenge, and tried to live on $29 worth of food for an entire week. By day four, she had given up. While it is always great when celebrities try to raise awareness about causes that matter, opportunities to put on and take off privilege are ill-advised.

These are acts of poor-face, or class-face, that are not unlike uses of blackface, or dressing in fatsuits, or spending a day in a wheelchair to raise awareness about racism, fatphobia, and disability. The point in each case is that the person with privilege can stop at any time. They can bow out. They can declare that this is all simply too much.

In the case of both Kansas and Gwyneth Paltrow, white people on the left and the right are playing with the lives of poor people. On the right the games are more insidious as they involve a kind of malicious toying with the well-being of the poor for the sake of legislating the value of hard work, as though poor people in this country are not largely constituted by folks who work many hours each day for subpar wages. On the left, these forms of play are well-intended but still largely ineffective as a solution. The only thing that will solve this problem besides a fundamental redistribution of wealth -- the thought of which exasperates those on the right into a level of mania that is absolutely absurd -- is a sustained commitment at the level of policy to building and maintaining a robust social safety net.

But there is, I think, a deeper psychology at play here as well. The middle class in this country is shrinking and the wealth gap is widening. Americans work seemingly longer and harder than we ever have before. I cannot think of one friend I know who is not inordinately busy, and while many have written about the seductions of this type of busyness, I think that there are actually structural reasons at the heart of it, and one of the main causes of busyness is the increasingly pervasive philosophy of austerity. Austerity measures work in part by making us believe that we have to work harder and harder to justify our value to corporations and institutions that want to give us less and less. The rise in automation at our jobs means that in many professions, one person does the job that two or three people would have been paid to do 20 years ago. But the salary increase is not commensurate with the increase in labor.

Those of us solidly situated in the middle class work harder and harder with less to show for it.  That can only be justified at a psychological level if there are clear demarcations of value. So when we look at the poor, their lives need to look appreciably more difficult than ours, in order for our lives to look like middle-class lives.

Class position in this country has never just been about economics, but about a particular kind of "habitus," as Pierre Bourdieu has called it. We perform class through the amusements we partake of, the kinds of taste in food, clothes and entertainment we have, the kinds of things we read and talk about, where we go to college if at all, where we vacation, if at all.

In a world where there is much economic precarity even among members of the middle class, one way to insure that folks feel content in their middle-classness is to create more and more barriers and rungs on the ladder between the middle class and the poor. If the poor aren’t on the ladder at all, then perhaps one will be fooled about how low on the ladder one now is, as a member of the middle class. In other words, this kind of social regulation of the poor keeps our criticisms and our focus trained below rather than above.

Lauren Berlant has called our continued investments in the possibility of a failing system “cruel optimism.” And Kansas is trafficking in the cruelest of forms of optimism. There structurally-induced misery is being marketed as “hope.” This Kansas law is about the denial of hope, the denial of opportunity, the denial of a way into something better. Perhaps, I am the anti-Dorothy, but I find myself clicking my heels, hoping that I wake up almost anywhere other than Kansas.

By Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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Democrats Gwyneth Paltrow Poverty Racism Republicans Systemic Racism Welfare White America White Liberals