A week ago, one of our former foster sons celebrated his ninth birthday. He’s now living with family in another state, and we have kept in regular touch. We sent a gift, a card with some pictures we thought he’d enjoy, and on the afternoon of his birthday, we tried to call and wish him happy, but the phone had been disconnected.

This was not a total shock. It had happened once before, during the process of getting him ready to move. His family loves him and he’s very happy there – but they live very, very close to the economic margin. Both of the adults in his family have serious health concerns that sometimes impinge on their ability to work. Both have low paying jobs of the kind that lay people off when the economic winds blow. They barely have enough money to get along, and they don’t have health insurance, so any number of things get sacrificed when a sudden expense comes along – and they often do. Their family is constantly balancing different needs, paying the most urgent bill and setting the others aside, and that kind of roulette involves a lot of painful mistakes when something breaks or gets turned off.

I’ve had a pretty good sense of how close to the margin they live since the day that the Dad mentioned offhand that when his step-daughter graduated high school, they couldn’t afford a camera to take pictures, so they were borrowing a robe and a camera to reproduce the experience so she’d have one picture of her graduation. High school graduation is quite an accomplishment in their family – it isn’t something you take for granted. It was a big deal – and when the day came around, they couldn’t take pictures, so when things eased up a little bit, they struggled to make a facsimile that would allow them to remember/

Which led me to wonder – did their phone get cut off because they were buying our former foster son a birthday present? It isn’t at all implausible, although I’m only guessing. Their family has a tradition of lavish gifts for birthdays – more lavish than my own family’s, which is better able to afford it. Our former son was in the habit of telling us what he got for every birthday and Christmas from each family member – and he never forgot anything – including the years that there was no money and no birthday or holiday presents.

Some months ago I read a report in a magazine (The Economist I think – I can’t find it again) that argued that the world’s hungry people overwhelmingly have enough money for food, they just spend it badly. The report showed evidence that among the world’s poorest people money was spent on liquor, cigarettes, dowries and weddings, gifts for others, etc…. demonstrating that the poor should have enough money to buy food, and almost no one should ever be hungry, because all the poor have to do is stop buying everything else, and they’ll be fine.

Echoes of this appear in discussions of the purchasing choices of those in poverty in the US – they mostly aren’t starving, but they are often food insecure and insecure in other ways. Invariably, it comes up in the discussion of poverty – but these poor people I know have smart phones and cable, and I don’t. Their poverty stems from bad choices, not from any real and objective experience.

There is some truth to that. My foster kids sometimes come from homes with expensive gaming systems, flat-screen tvs. Their parents may have no money but they have better cell phones than I do. At one point we held a celebration for some kids in our home, giving them a set of (we thought) very nice gifts, only to be told “I have three of these” “Oh, but I have a better one at home.” (In fact, the kids were homeless and their prior stuff had been discarded, but this is a pretty normal reaction from kids who don’t want to betray their parents by appreciating you too much, although I admit, it does sting a little.)

The reality is that in a life without much stability, with few high points, lots of fear and violence and desperate poverty, those moments of seemingly foolish consumer spending can be really meaningful. At one point a child in my care who had been beaten, starved and tied defended the abuser by saying “But for my birthday they took me to the toy store and let me pick anything I wanted up to $50. $50!!!! So I know they must love me.” And maybe they did. Within the horrible limitations of their ability to love and care for these kids, at least they spent money on them sometimes – even if it would have been better to spend it on keeping food in the fridge. Because my kids know that birthdays matter, gifts matter, stuff matters. They see it in the culture around them. They see as much advertising as anyone does, if not more. They know that other people have other things, and they don’t understand why their lives full of pain and fear don’t look like the ones on tv – they are acutely conscious of what they don’t have (in every sense), for they’ve spent hours looking at it.

The kids tend to be fixated on material things – when a birthday comes around, or Christmas (and remember, often those things also come with additional stresses as grownups struggle with too much pressure and not enough money), at least there is an object there to assure a child of that most basic thing – that they matter. Indeed, my kids have been taught to see money and things as all – because those are most lacking in their lives, but also more present than things like security, peace or love.

It is absolutely true that often poor people make stupid, lousy choices. It is also true that poor people live in culture, not in isolation – that is, they are taught to want exactly what richer people have. They are taught exactly the values that richer people have. And then they are told that wanting those things and valuing those things that they have been taught matter most makes them bad. The father who forgets his daughter’s birthday is evil – but the poor father who spends part of the rent money on toys for his daughter’s birthday is bad too. The person who can’t bear to be the only one without a smartphone is normal if they can afford it, but perverse and making bad choices if they can’t – even though advertising and cultural values are distributed without regard to wealth. It is normal to smoke in many cultures of the global south – and indeed, smoking can quiet the hunger pangs that are part of life – but it is also bad to smoke because the smoking costs money. Too bad it is so hard to stop when the need comes around again.

It is absolutely true that the world’s poor and the American poor spend money on escapism, and on the celebrations and cultural events demanded by their society. It is easy to say “Well, they just shouldn’t spend all their money on a wedding feast for their son, they should buy more groceries.” But how many of us can resist those social pressures? How many of us can say “Ok, your wedding day is just another day, no graduation party for you, and cancel Christmas?” How many of us keep up appearances in some way – not wanting to look poor – but blame the poor, who in many ways struggle much more with that issue, for doing the same. This is true in Bangladesh and in Illinois, in Detroit and in Sofia. In fact, as the graph in this article shows, the poor spend a smaller proportion of their income on entertainment and luxury items than the middle class or wealthy – but we really want them to spend none. What we want is for the poor to be more moral than we are, to recognize that their dependence gives them no rights and no choices, unless they are morally perfect.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not defending all their choices. There is a part of me that wants to explain to the family of our foster son that there are ways to spend less and get the same amount of pleasure – and indeed, that’s a lot of what I do as a writer, hoping that at some point the ideas I teach will trickle down to those who need them most, and more importantly, the culture that says it is ok not to have most electronics, that says it is ok to wear used clothes instead of new and to make your own shampoo rather than paying $6 a bottle will reach down. I get upset when kids arrive with shoes four sizes too small and stories about sleeping in bus stations but their parents have smartphones.

At the same time, I recognize that living in culture creates demands upon people that seem necessary to them – and that we are all of us subject to this. The perception of need has been altered so much by our culture’s materialism that it is incredibly hard to resist – and often the poorest people in our society, at least the ones I encounter, are the LEAST equipped to resist – they are least educated in resisting consumer norms, least educated in thrift and do-it-yourself culture, struggling with medical and mental illnesses that devour their time and resources, afraid to go out of their apartments in unsafe neighborhoods and watching tv to find out what other people live like. They often are as uncritical a consumer of our culture as you can possibly be – and they are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Excoriated for their alienness if they have none of the trappings of normalcy, excoriated for their choices if they keep to as many as they can.

It has been one of the great realizations of modern research that the poor really aren’t different than you and I. It seems strange that this should come upon people as such a shock, but it truly does. For example, for a long time people assumed that the rise of unmarried motherhood meant that low income people didn’t value marriage. In fact, it turns out that they do – they believe in marriage and family just like most other people do. They simply don’t see themselves as having access to it – they don’t want to put their kids through divorce and failed marriage, and they don’t see the people around them as providing what would be needed, so they don’t marry.

I’ve written before about what I think is coming to America over the next decade or so – what I call “Ordinary Human Poverty.” That is, the experience of poverty and struggle as a growing norm, because without the underlying push of cheap energy and hitting the limits of endless growth, more and more of us are going to struggle. This has already begun, and it is likely to only get worse as climate change and related disasters eat up more of our resources, as energy and food prices rise, as we simply can’t count on growth. So we need to ask ourselves – if poor people have the same values as everyone else, but those values are a set-up for increasing struggle, ones that constantly set them back, and lead to them being seen as morally inferior, do we accept that fate for ourselves, or do we change our culture and our culture’s values?

I have never seen the tv show everyone is talking about, “Honey Boo Boo” and I doubt I ever will, since we have no tv reception. It is, depending on who you are and how much you enjoy wringing your hands about the death of culture, either the tv apocalypse or a great show to watch with a kind of hip irony. I can’t comment, because I haven’t seen it. My own take from what I’ve read, however is that Honey Boo Boo has a reasonably functional family, even if they are tacky. They aren’t homeless, they were able to support a teenage mother in their midst, and everyone seems to be getting (too much) dinner – and their values seem taken straight from tv, where Sketti really is better than homemade and fart jokes really are awesomely funny for the 97th time. If there’s anything weird about this it isn’t the four kids, four fathers thing – it is the self-referentiality of a tv show about people who represent a version of what they see tv saying they should be, and do a pretty good job of being that. I’m assuming the meta-qualities will get even greater as spin-offs arise showing tv characters built around the assumptions of the Honey Boo-Boo show. Yeah, its a race to the bottom, but is that really surprising?

Again, if the values of our culture don’t serve the poorest people, they don’t serve the potentially poor either – that would be you and me. The reality is that the culture that demands we always buy more and have more sucks for everyone. Moreover, you could certainly make a case (I’ve spent pretty much all the years I’ve been blogging making this case, so I won’t reiterate here) that they don’t serve the rich all that well either, and will be even less helpful as more people get poor. After all, discontentment with your lot and cultural materialism lead to anger when those needs can’t be met. The Tea Party and the Occupy movement are early heralds, but time will tell just how angry people will get, and with whom. I’d suggest there are other good reasons why this doesn’t serve anyone, but if nothing else, when my foster son who has been taught to believe that the spending of money on luxury items is the best and only expression of love he will ever get grows up, and can’t afford those expressions of love, he’s going to be mad. Really mad. And he and all the other kids who grew up in a world that told them only wealth and things matter and then denied them those things aren’t going to be quiet about their expressions of anger.

I hope my foster son had a happy birthday. I hope in some ways that his family was able to buy him a gift, that the phone turned off didn’t mean that he got nothing, because they were pushed to the wall, but that they were choosing their son’s birthday party over their landline. I probably would have done so too – because their child has been told that celebrations and lavish birthday gifts are a sign of love and a secure family – they’ve seen it a thousand times on tv. Moreover, having been denied most of the things that other kids take for granted – a home to sleep in at night, food every day on the table, parents who protect rather than abuse – this is the only thing they know with certainty, that love comes wrapped in a box.

Beyond that day, however, I hope for something different. I hope that the experience of real love in their new family will slowly teach them that the box isn’t the point, that presents aren’t love, that things are not what matter most. Moreover, I hope that our culture can move past its painful and stagnant and incredibly destructive confused materialism to something else as well so that their parents aren’t bound up in the tangle of materialism that demands that they meet conflicting needs and keeps them struggling in the depths of poverty. If we don’t change the culture, if we don’t find a way back to valuing thrift and things beyond materialism, the poor – all of us in our own way – will always be doomed to failure.