The Simple Dollar makes for a good read every now and again, and I have a few friends who follow it regularly. So it was that I came across this problematic post:
An obviously upset Sam writes in:
You think your world is all rainbows and puppies. Guess what? Karma will eventually bite you in the [rear]. Seven months ago I got fired from my job for no fault of my own the company was going under. Now I cant pay my bills and Im going to lose my house. Your life isnt a real life.
Trent of the Simple Dollar goes on to detail his personal, very real struggle to overcome his own debt. What he glosses over, and the upset Sam leaves implied, is that Trent is indeed viewing the world through privileged lenses. When liberals say privilege we mean “special rights or status” granted by society on the basis of a particular grouping, for example Male Privilege. We also include a lack of self awareness about said rights and status. Privilege is often invisible to those enjoying its benefits.
Sam’s critique isn’t effective, which is unfortunate since it lands upon a very real issue with the site. What he ought to have said is “Your site’s advice doesn’t take many real world problems into account, and its frustrating to read yet another blogger suggesting we need to “pick ourselves up by the bootstraps” or “fix our finances”. We don’t *have* finances to fix, we don’t have jobs, and in this economy no matter how hard we try many of us won’t for some time”. I would have liked to have seen this message, because Trent’s response simply doesn’t cut it:
Guess what? I got out of that situation. It wasn’t easy. I had to face a ton of my own flaws along the way, most of which are still a difficult part of my own life.
He’s responding with a personal anecdote. Its the equivalent of a software developer for Firefox angrily writing “well it works for me Firefox must never crash”, ignoring the scores of bug reports coming in. Its wonderful that his approach to finance and life worked for him – hell its inspiring. But that doesn’t change the fact that for many people his advice simply does not apply. Trent betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of this situation with his next statement:
The biggest thing I learned is that no one is perfect, and every single person is in a situation that they can improve. Period. There are no exceptions to this. No one is living the best life they could be living. Why? Because, again, no one is perfect.
This assumes that less than ideal situations are the result of personal imperfection, and that everyone lives in a situation they are empowered to change. This ignores Sam’s email (“through no fault of my own”), and in fact the entire existence of lay-offs, factory closings, company towns, and other restrictive situations that leave people struggling in the dirt. By the same token it ignores the issues faced by those enduring various barriers to seeking more rewarding and stable employment – or any employment at all. Its incredibly naive. Which fits with the rest of his advice:
Here’s a good exercise: imagine where you’d be if you suddenly lost your job. Would you be able to pay your bills for the next few months? If not, then you’ve identified a weakness, one you can solve by saving some money each week.
Many Americans have jobs (sometimes multiple) that take up 40 or more hours a week – who still have trouble paying their bills. Saving is a cynical piece of advice given the impossibility and impracticality of it for those who are truly just barely making enough to get by. The Simple Dollar just assumes such people don’t exist – or if they do its through their own fault.
Don’t get me wrong, the post’s final message is great:
What can you do, right now, to start improving your situation? That’s the only question that matters.
It just fails to recognize that sometimes said situation improvement isn’t directly possible for everyone, and sometimes it involves seeking systemic change, rather than saving mere change every week in the hope it will eventually add up. The post has an odor of “blame the poor for their poverty” about it, and that just stinks.