Thursday, January 17, 2013

Coffee politics

Remember the young woman so privileged she was applying for food stamps? The detail readers honed in on was the $1.50 coffee-shop coffee the author mentions drinking at the top of the piece. Search the page for "coffee" and you see the rage in the comments. There's a whole genre of condescending financial advice geared at The Youth, telling them that coffee out adds up. Why is it always coffee? Let's unpack that one author's cup of coffee's significance, and that of coffee and class more generally, setting aside the question of where coffee itself comes from and that whole set of labor concerns:

-Telling a broke middle-class person to give up lattes is, as we established in this thread, very much like telling a legitimately-poor one to exchange fast-food for lentils. It's ignoring that this purchase is a pleasure as well as a convenience. And you just get the sense that part of the tsk-tsking does come from the fact that advice-givers are uncomfortable with whichever caste enjoying themselves, or having the audacity to believe their time has value.

-Britta brought this up in the earlier thread, but it also bears repeating: Debt changes everything. As does parental assistance. And the economy is such that you can perfectly well be college-educated, employed in an office-job, and not earning enough to live on in your locale. If you're starting from negative $, it's less obvious what 'living within your means' means than if you're budgeting a salary. Does it mean not a cent other than what's needed to maintain your nutritional requirements and look reasonable at a job interview?

-No one needs coffee. Yet coffee isn't bad for you, either. That might make us think it would seem less decadent than the obvious comparisons (alcohol, tobacco, non-diet soda), but if anything, that coffee's only sinful in its gratuitousness makes it the most appealing target for anti-decadence crusaders. There's this kind of noble, respectable quality to actual self-destruction, like you're a devil-may-care libertarian relic of the hard-living days. (Maybe less so with jumbo soda, but even there there's the nanny-state concern.) That whichever self-destructive products cost money is secondary. But there's nothing hardcore and stick-it-to-the-man about foamy espresso drinks.

-Someone who thinks $1.50 coffee is cheap probably comes from a wealthy family, or at least not a truly destitute one. A coffee at a coffee shop will, in my experience, nowadays cost $2 in posher areas, far more in a restaurant, but maybe still less from a cart/deli, and definitely much less at home. A couple relevant facts about YPIS: 1) a speaker who identifies as privileged, who acknowledges privilege, basically invites accusations of privilege, and 2) one easy route to a quick YPIS is to hear someone refer to X as 'not that expensive,' and to be like, dude, if you think X isn't absolutely the most expensive thing ever, your privilege is showing.

-The classic job of the otherwise-unemployable humanities BA is barista. We associate coffee shops with underachieving middle-class white kids, friends' children who by all accounts should have real office-jobs by now. This (see footnote here) helps explain why baristas make at least minimum wage and still get these odd sympathy/solidarity tips. But it also tells us part of why coffee, that fueler of productivity, is seen as a slacker beverage. If you're on the coffee shop and not headed to the office, that changes everything.

-The fetishization of coffee exemplifies the food thing. Something ordinary is now artisanal, and vastly more expensive. And the food thing is what's wrong with young people today.

-Someone who can hardly afford $1.50 for coffee - brace yourselves for this - is actually not doing so great financially. I would go so far as to say that if you are a college-educated, coffee-drinking adult and weighing the pros and cons of this purchase for reasons other than whatever joy you get from thrift, this is indicative of a larger problem, one that coffee-or-not won't solve. While privilege is multifaceted, and includes race, able-bodiedness, level of education, and intangibles like which class you come across as, it would seem, if we take our liberal-arts-grad hats off for a moment, that someone out of school who's scraping together a buck fifty for a coffee is not privileged. Maybe even really, really not privileged.

-What readers are reacting to, the ones who are horrified that an unemployed person would spend $1.50 in a coffee shop, is that the indulgence in question is so painfully middle-class. It's a future-oriented indulgence that won't impair your ability to mesh with a white-collar office environment. But there's also the schadenfreude, the element of watching the mighty tumble, or simply regression to the mean. As in, look at her, with her middle-class trappings, thinking she's so fancy all the while not being able to afford groceries. And it's also just so depressing, if you're unemployable, and your great pleasure is this thing intended to make office-workers more productive on too little sleep.

6 comments:

Petey said...

Mere coffee is for food stamp pikers.

I was on food stamps for about six months once upon a time, and I used to take great glee in buying huge hunks of Reggiano and fresh pesto with the food stamps at a gourmet shop.

I was genuinely cash poor at the time, though I had a nice roof over my head. The food stamps helped me through a rough spot immensely, and I wasn't cheating the rules in any way, shape, or form by qualifying for them. I'm sure if I'd published an article about my actions, folks would strongly disagree with my specific budgeting choices, but to hell with them.

Sigivald said...

And the economy is such that you can perfectly well be college-educated, employed in an office-job, and not earning enough to live on in your locale.

This reminds me of Megan McArdle's gentle reminder to people that, except for a few career paths where it's a necessity, living in NYC (or DC) is a consumption choice, and one you'll pay dearly for.

It's going to be harder to work an office job, fresh out of school, and live (especially on your own!) in New York than, say, Salt Lake City or Boise.

New York has its attractions and advantages (and the reverse) - but the important thing to remember for people in such a position is that those advantages aren't free and furthermore, no, nobody should be subsidizing you for them, either...

Phoebe said...

Petey,

The coffee wasn't purchased with food stamps! It was purchased while this woman contemplated them. And I'm not sure why the purchases you made would be so out-there - if they're used as pasta toppings, those are still cheap meals. I know whereof I speak.

Sigivald,

So would you say that no one in the city of New York should qualify for food stamps?

Petey said...

"And I'm not sure why the purchases you made would be so out-there - if they're used as pasta toppings, those are still cheap meals."

Sure. But can you imagine the outrage if I wrote about it in Slate?

As you correctly note regarding the source of the outrage:

"What readers are reacting to, the ones who are horrified that an unemployed person would spend $1.50 in a coffee shop, is that the indulgence in question is so painfully middle-class."

The poor should be eating in soup kitchens, or at least using Kraft Cheese Substitute Topping on their pasta, just due to the general attitudes you discuss. Reggiano should be rationed out to the gainfully employed.

(And I most certainly did get dirty looks in the gourmet store when I would pull out food stamps for that kind of purchase, which merely added to my glee...)

Phoebe said...

"And I most certainly did get dirty looks in the gourmet store"

Which will likely change, now that "gourmet" has been replaced with "local-sustainable." And farmers' markets often take food stamps, and I'd even heard of ideas (perhaps implemented?) to make food-stamp dollars worth more at these markets.

MBB said...

Sigivald, while my gut agrees with you that location is a consumption good, I'm not sure that's a strong argument against subsizing people staying in large cities. My first question is practical: say someone has indeed "overconsumed" Chicago - should they simply buy a one-way Amtrak ticket to somewhere smaller ? A person who has "overconsumed their location" is either unemployed or underemployed and probably doesn't have money for a security deposit, first/last month's rent, even in a less expensive town. And who says he will have better luck finding work and staying off the dole in a much smaller town?

Second, if the person has some skills that could get him more money in Chicago eventually, but not now (certainly not the case for everyone, but true for many, especially the young college grads Phoebe tends to write about) - now both he and his prospective employer have lost utility due to his premature move back to the country. The loss could be huge for a young person at the beginning at their career, it seems.