The Anxious Enchantment of Poverty
Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence. In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.” Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.
One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships. The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!” It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty. Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.”
The resort’s “informal settlement” is of course simply a privileged imagination of impoverishment, a distorted imitation of a shantytown life that never existed. Nevertheless, the media mockery of Emoya risks evading our uneasy enchantment with profound impoverishment and the gross inequalities illuminated by crushing blight. The voyeuristic dimensions of “slumming” and “poverty porn” acknowledge our anxieties but typically display them in ways that temper our apprehensions of stark poverty’s injustice. Rather than simply lament shallow popular displays of poverty, we might instead concede our fascination with impoverishment and probe how it might lead to new forms of activism and not simply legitimize penury.
By the late-19th century many genteel visitors considered slum visits a routine part of bourgeois urban life and tourism. Charles Dickens blazed the trail in his 1842 American Notes for General Circulation when he toured New York City’s Five Points neighborhood, concluding that “as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgment-hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.” In 1884 the New York Times argued that slum tourism had its roots in the UK, where “the London ‘slumming’ has brought to the notice of the rich much suffering, and led to many sanitary reforms.” The paper suggested that “the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen for sightseeing” will “become a form of fashionable dissipation this Winter among our belles.” In contrast to the UK, though, “the mania here has assumed the single form of sightseeing—the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”
Many of the genteel slum tourists reduced poverty to an engaging aesthetic that symbolized racial, ethnic, and class diversity. In 1899, for instance, Scottish traveler William Archer concluded that New York’s “slums have a Southern air about them, a variety of contour and colour—in some aspects one might almost say a gaiety. … For one thing, the ubiquitous balconies and fire escapes serve of themselves to break the monotony of line, and lend, as it were, a peculiar texture to the scene; to say nothing of the opportunities they afford for the display of multifarious shreds and patches of colour. Then the houses themselves are often brightly, not to say loudly, painted; so that in the clear, sparkling atmosphere characteristic of New York, the most squalid slum puts on a many-coloured Southern aspect.” Archer’s suggestion that New York slums had an African-American aesthetic was repeated by Ray Stannard Baker in 1904 when he noted that in Southern cities, “The temperament of the Negro is irrepressibly cheerful, he overflows from his small home… and his squalour is not unpicturesque.”
BBC’s 2014 series Benefits Street is much like Victorian travelogues and bourgeois shanty hotels that revolve around our curiosity to see if not experience exceptional poverty. Benefits Street follows a series of Birmingham residents in a neighborhood that Channel 4 described as “one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets.” The five-episode documentary/reality show charts the everyday experience of poverty among a few individuals, observing the everyday tactics and desperation of the impoverished and painting the material and social landscape of poverty. The ratings alone suggest that there is widespread curiosity about poverty and welfare in the UK: the 4.3 million viewers for the series’ first episode on January 6th made it more popular than any of Channel 4’s 2013 programs, and the subsequent two episodes drew 5.1 and 5.2 million viewers. Nevertheless, the first episodes documented tactics such as shoplifting and the drug trade, leading some observers to complain that the series exploited popular preconceptions about poverty and was not a study of “neighbourly togetherness and community spirit,” as some residents believed it would be. Using a similar formula to Benefits Street, BBC3’s 2013 People Like Us followed impoverished residents in Manchester estate housing. The Guardian’s Fern Brady referred to People Like Us as a “pantomime” of poverty in which “every ancient stereotype of the working class is endorsed – obesity, sexual deviancy, alcoholism, chain-smoking, and antisocial behaviour.”
BBC suggests that Benefits Street and tonight’s live Benefits Street: The Debate will be part of a measured assessment of welfare. However, these discourses willfully avoid audiences’ existing feelings about poor people and state benefits. For some observers, for instance, the show confirms their deep-seated aversion to state welfare. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith concluded that the “shocking” series confirms “why the public backs our welfare reform package, to get more people back to work, to end these abuses.” Breitbart’s Raheem Kassan lamented that Benefits Street revealed “how some people on welfare in the UK forge or fake their inability to work in order to stay at home and receive taxpayer money in place of a salary.” The head of the production company that filmed Benefits Street argued that “It’s a very honest and true portrayal of life in Britain and people are frightened of it.” In contrast, The Independent’s Owen Jones deplored the shows’ “hunt for unsympathetic examples of unemployed people – in this case, on a street in Birmingham; they portray them in the worst possible light; and they fuel the pervasive sense that people on benefits are feckless scroungers.” Jones’ prescient reading of Benefits Street concludes that “A healthy media would stand up to the powerful and wealthy. Not ours, though: instead it stands up to the poor and voiceless.”
The intense response to Benefits Street and the host of curious tourists who have flocked to the neighborhood underscores the anxiety and fascination society has with its most materially marginalized members. The degree to which we know anything about difference—poverty, racism, sexism—is profoundly shaped by our experiences with difference, and for many of us those experiences come through mass culture: a few minutes on the local news or perhaps five hours of a documentary filmed over a year provide inevitably selective pictures of everyday life. Those media pictures in large part make places like Emoya Shantytown a believable fantasy on some level: that is, the Emoya slum hotel is experienced as a sanitized fantasy that openly imitates our own distorted caricatures of life in the most extreme poverty and racism. Benefits Street is an interesting exercise, but it ultimately seems to make the same mistake as many other slum tourists by fixating on the idiosyncratic everyday moments in poor peoples’ lives and failing to turn an eye on the structural conditions that make impoverishment not just possible but absolutely inevitable.
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Benefits Street/James Turner Street sign image from Wikipedia
James Turner Street scene image from the Express