The Poor Can’t Afford Not to Wear Nice Clothes

Why do disadvantaged people spend money on status symbols? For the same reason we all do.

Tressie McMillan Cottom
ZORA
Published in
9 min readJan 9, 2019

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Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Every time there is a national news story about a black shopper getting harassed in a store, there is a predictable backlash to the miscarriage of justice. We tend to move quickly from being outraged that it happened to critiquing why a black person was shopping there at all. Much like we interrogate what a woman was wearing when she was raped, we look for ways to assign personal responsibility for structural injustices to bodies we collectively do not value. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars? One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north, and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother and, later, my grandmother and mother use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who lived mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when he came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a…

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Tressie McMillan Cottom
ZORA
Writer for

Sociologist. Writer. Professor. MacArthur Fellow. Books, speaking, podcast: www.tressiemc.com