Thursday, March 16, 2017

Is Minimalism Poverty Appropriation?

I have a firsthand knowledge of poverty. There was a period of time growing up where my family lived in a home that was dark, drafty in the winter, and way too small. The roof leaked. I feared that the bathtub would fall through the floor every time I took a bath because the floor was so rotten. My parents drove $500 cars with the muffler tied up and the seats worn. I was embarrassed to have friends over and hated the cheap clothes I wore to school. Sometimes Mom would have to get creative to feed us. Dad became bitter and angry. He worked so hard, but it wasn't enough. We were among the rural poor of America.

I found myself struggling as an adult, five years ago, after my marriage to a very emotionally abusive man fell apart. I lost my job because I lacked childcare for my then three year old son. I had to rely on assistance to feed us. I had to beg, borrow, and take on odd jobs to keep the rent paid. I've dealt with the humiliation of having the lights cut off. I've dealt with the struggle of having to decide between getting the car repaired so I could drive to work or paying the bills. I eventually was offered a job as a teaching assistant in a little private school and now work as an art teacher at a different school. I still don't earn a lot, but we get by enough that I am no longer on government assistance.

So, yeah, I know a little bit about poverty.

Today I came across an article entitled The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation by July Westhale. Westhale makes the connection between minimalism, the tiny house movement, and poverty appropriation. She admits "This idea of "returning" to a "simple" life is one I struggle with." She tries to make the case that by wealthy people choosing to simplify their lives is poverty appropriation simply because poor people are limited by choice. 

I want to point out three things. One, poverty does not equal living a simple life. There is nothing simple about poverty. Two, poor people still have choices and are still capable of making bad choices that further hinder their situation and good choices that may lead to a more satisfying life. Three, minimalism isn't some feel good trend for the wealthy. In fact, in my experience, minimalism improved my standard of living even though I was poor. 

This is the second article I have come across trying to equate minimalism trends with poverty appropriation. I just don't see it. Yes, there needs to be more conversation on poverty in America, as well as an understanding of the unique challenges of the urban and rural poor. I see a huge rift between the really wealthy of our country and the poorest. In our current political climate that rift seems to be growing at an alarming rate. But I actually see minimalism as part of the solution to the issues surrounding poverty. 

Minimalism uses up less resources. It encourages thrift and moves us away from capitalism. It demands a respect for environment, lifting quality of living. Embracing minimalism actually allows  me to live on a lower class salary and truly embrace simplicity. I still struggle. I still make bad choices from time to time. Hey, I'm human. But minimalism has improved my standard of living.

I feel like Westhale doesn't fully understand minimalism and harbors some resentment for her years living in poverty. I get it. I feel that resentment at times, too. But I realize it's a struggle inside of me and doesn't help. I think she also uses a couple really fringe groups to make her point that poverty appropriation is even a thing. 

I agree with her that poverty sucks. It's nothing to mock and it is far more complicated than the stereotypes our culture assigns to it. However, she misuses the word appropriation. I see no glorification of the poor through minimalism. It is possible to be poor and choose minimalism as a way to better one's life. It is also possible to be wealthy and choose to embrace minimalism as a means to escape the rat race overconsumption of our society. Neither is better than the other. Neither is an insult to the other. Both are living their lives the best they know how. 


  1. I enjoyed this read, thank you. I was brainstorming on ways that violence in Baltimore city might eventually be reduced, and I came to the realization that humans who are content with what they have don't tend to rob other humans for what they have. I had never heard Minimalism compared to appropriation, and I don't think it is, but it did get me thinking more, and I appreciate that.

    1. You are welcome. I'm glad it gave you more to think about. I've always theorized that inner city violence is not just about lack, but also a disconnect from nature. It's such a big issue I'm sure it's causes are not black and white, but gratitude for what you have and lack of envy for what others have surely brings peace and a feeling of more control over your environment and well being.