Poverty Tourism

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November 24, 2012 by Ericka

I read this article the other day over at Mother Jones. It’s one person’s tale of working as a picker in a warehouse. She spend five days as a picker and writes an expose on the working conditions in the warehouse. I’ll say this once:  I am an advocate for human rights which includes labor issues.  But I have several issues with this article and this type of journalism. It’s a form of “poverty tourism” where middle class people tour the working class to gain insight and experiences that they believe will make them more enlightened.

This article is the epitome of the disconnect between middle class intellectuals and those of the other classes. I cannot speak from an upper class perspective, but I can speak from the working class. There is all this knowledge being created in the middle classes that creates the narrative of “good” and “bad.” This group gets to expound upon the horrors created by the upper classes onto those in the working classes while the middle class intellectuals sit by virtually blameless. Yet, they are the ones writing the article, selling books, and giving speeches on the classism they perpetuate and benefit from.

The disconnect between middle class is apparent from the outset. A middle class woman knowingly takes a job she doesn’t need in order to get a profitable experience. With unemployment at 8% or more, it’s shameful to take a weeks worth of wages from a person who needs them, but she and her editors did not even discuss the privilege or ethics of her taking this job.

Furthermore, her ability to obtain a genuine experience of the working conditions is questionable. There is a difference in the effects of manual labor on a person’s body. A person who has been working manual labor for many years may have less trouble adjusting to the working conditions than a writer. This is not to argue that the  quotas and speed requirements are not troublesome, but the rawness of her pain may be exaggerated by her lack of current experience in the working class.

But this is all part of the disconnect between the middle class and working class. It is even apparent in the title “I was a warehouse wage slave.”  The American middle class values the hierachary created by capitalism. Such phrases reinforce the middle class belief of what kind of work is “valued” and “fulfilling.” Read warehouse work is wage slavery and writing for Mother Jones is not.  My mother, who is in her 60s, has been a waitress nearly her entire adult working life. She averages about 60 hours a week. Two year ago was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer  During her chemo treatment, she cut down to 35 hours a week. She could have cut back more if she wanted to, but the fact is that she didn’t want to cut back–not because she needed the money–but she because she needed the activity and socialization. She finds value in her work in terms of how good of a waitress she is and the friendships she has made through the restaurant. Articles such as this, discounts the value that working class people may find in their jobs. The writer further dehumanizes working class people when she refers to them as “drones” because people are defined by their work which couldn’t possibly have meaning or value.

Ever since Upton Sinclair wrote the “Jungle” we have seen muckraking journalist trying to bring the plight of the working class to the middle to upper middle classes. My question is this: Is anyone really surprised by the working conditions? Do we as a society really believe that we can get our products cheap and fast without some kind of violation of human rights? We need to move beyond this type of expose and start thinking, talking, and writing about–not just what do we need to give up and what are we willing to give up in order to advance a human rights agenda–but how and why are we benefitting from exposing the oppression of working class people. Instead of focusing on the emotional manipulation of working conditions, we need to challenge people to think critically about capitalism, and its insatiable appetite.

3 thoughts on “Poverty Tourism

  1. JaeRan says:

    “This group gets to expound upon the horrors created by the upper classes onto those in the working classes while the middle class intellectuals sit by virtually blameless.” Brilliant, Ericka.

  2. JaeRan says:

    “Articles such as this, discounts the value that working class people may find in there jobs. The writer further dehumanizes working class people when she refers to them as “drones” because people are defined by their work which couldn’t possibly have meaning or value.” This too – absolutely important to state. Thank you for this response. I have found MJ to be problematic often because this is a typical type of article that they often publish. Reminds me of Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Nickeled and Dimed too.

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