Monday, February 28, 2005

Consuming poor

In the most recent New Republic, G. Pascal Zachary has an excellent critique of the crackpot ideas of C.K. Prahalad, who thinks we can end poverty by making the poor more inveterate consumers and by making corporations realize how much profit can be made by catering to them. Zachary points out the obvious: that it's hard to make a profit from people with no money, and that making the poor consumers prohibits them from saving, the one thing that might help the end the cycle of poverty. What the poor need, Zachary argues convincingly, is good jobs, not more consumer junk. They certainly don't need any more marketing pressure to consume; these pressures already fall on them disporoportionately, leading to the paycheck-loan phenomenon I was lamenting about last week. Who are the early adopters of flashy and largely unnecessary consumer goods? Who buys the giant TVs and the gas-guzzling SUVs and the tacky leather furniture? The poor, because the only tenuous stake they can claim to society's admiration, the only thing within their reach and educational scope, comes through these goods. (I apologize if that's patronizing, but empirical evidence would seem to back it up.) Having the loudest stereo may be the only way they are able to think of themselves as a somebody, and get an emotional lift. Isolated from social support networks and poorly educated, they are defenseless against marketing, which is one of the prime forces for setting them on the path of reckless consumer spending and measuring self-worth in square-inches of flat-screen plasma.

Corporations already employ the best ways to make money off the poor, the time-honored method of exploiting their weaknesses and gouging them with prices unheard of in suburbia. The poor can't choose where they shop, therefore they must suffer the absurd prices at convenience stores or rent-to-own centers. The poor can't secure cheap credit, so they have to accept paycheck loans. They can't go to the bank in their neighborhood, because there isn't one. So they have to pay 10 percent for the privelege of having their checks cashed. These methods are thriving, and free-market profit remains high as long as the poor's options are kept limited and their education remains bad. Which is why cynical Republicans love destroying government -- this assures that the poor will have no recourse and will constitue an evergrowing populace from whom easier and easier money can be made.

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