Lately, there seems to be an uptick in the economy. Things are getting better, right–the quality of life improving for everyone? We know this isn’t true, but resist putting a pin in the precise problem. Let me say this up front, so there’s no confusion about my angle:
No, I do not resent wealth or people who have it. I enjoy having money, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your wealth to make life more comfortable for yourself–whether that takes the form of championing a new community tax intended to improve roads, build schools, or create better access to resources. However, I have often spoken of a growing uneasiness about the mindsets that often accompany the state of being that is affluence. That’s what I’d like to explore today.
Too Comfortable With Entitlement?
During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, a friend of mine and I went to take a look at the new mixed-purpose construction in the area, named Avalon. This is intended to provide individuals with shopping and living all in one little community, reducing the need for a car. I love this idea. In fact, it’s one of the things I miss most about living in a city generally–particularly Albuquerque with its decided lack of weather–the ability to walk or take public transit almost anywhere I needed to go. I don’t want to need a car simply to exist as anything but a hermit. The newly widened road was frequently graced with new covered bus stops with benches and trash cans–an amazing sight, considering that the Avalon is located many miles from Atlanta in a decidedly upper class suburban oasis.
Public transit is not something Georgia does well. For years, suburban residents in the more affluent “North Fulton” County (there’s no actual division) have been fighting an extension of the MARTA train line into their neat, orthodox little communities. They claim it will bring a tsunami of violent crime and “undesirables” with it. And while you might spot actual MARTA buses on the road occasionally, the bust stop signs have always reminded me of the standing stones you encounter in Europe–isolated, without present purpose, though they are obviously meant to convey meaning of some sort. You’re lucky if the buses run at all, much less on time or when they’re supposed to. This is largely due to a pervasive attitude that only poor people take public transit anywhere. Buses are not for people who live in the suburbs–an environment constructed on the assumption that you have a car. Everything is distant, sidewalks are decorative, and commerce and residential are awkwardly separate.
Anyone who walks to the grocery store or uses the fickle public transit is seen as dirty, low-class, undesirable. My own father tends to assume that they are all “illegals,” or “blacks” which is truly awkward for several reasons: 1) It’s retch-gaggingly racist, 2) I’d be in that group if I weren’t staying with them, and 3) he has absolutely nothing beyond the most superficial impressions upon which to base his statements. I would probably be using public assistance, walking to the grocery store, to work, and everywhere else whenever possible. Whenever he starts in on one of his diatribes, I leave the room because I know that all the facts, statistics, and logic in the world won’t change his stance. It’s the ideology talking, again. I have my biases, too. But a conversation about this particular issue seems to be a non-starter.
It’s Hard to Put Your Finger On It
On that last December afternoon of fitful storm clouds and pale blue sky, we pulled into the Avalon complex. I felt immediately crushed beneath a tidal wave of…what? People meandered along the sidewalks, dressed like they had stepped from a trendy advertisement; children laughed and played, sometimes spilling into the street; the sleek, finished lines of architecture hung with graceful balance. Truly, the attractiveness of everything was entirely overwhelming. What I was probably feeling was that uneasiness–generally quiescent–stirring ever so slightly in response to the smoothness of the images before me. It was homogenized, upper-middle-class holiday time.
People were at play–“multi-cultural” families out shopping for last minute things, young and single trendy 20-somethings briskly striding to an exciting and vague destination. The problem? Everyone looked somehow the same. When I say “multi-cultural,” just like that, you should assume that I’m not referring to people who actually have a different culture. They’re American. They’re moderately well off. They wear the clothes that are most popular at the moment, live in the right area, and have everything together. They behave as expected in public. And I am afraid of them with their Pottery Barn faces and their J. Crew families and their Prius-friendly designer pets. You need not think that I will make any excuses for the boatload of presumptive judgement the above paragraphs represent. I won’t. I will say that I am sure many of them are wonderful people when you interact with them individually. When taken en masse–they make me itch under my skin.
The Gothic Cathedral and the Royal Stables
Whole Foods has stores in many neighborhoods, and they do offer a nice array of products and produce in all of them. While one of my first thoughts upon walking through the doors was that I was not well-dressed enough to be shopping at this particular location, I enjoy browsing whether I buy anything or not. As my friend and I wove through the isles clogged with inattentive parents, rude and pushy people, and frenzied employees, she said she didn’t want to believe what I said about the relationship between affluence and variety of options when it came to basic foods.
I’ve maintained for years that generic store chains, such as Wal Mart and Kroger (Smith’s or King Supers out west), are not only constructed more nicely in neighborhoods with more money, they also offer better products, more diversity of products. Their staff is more deferential, helpful, and friendly. The stores are cleaner, more pleasantly maintained, and brightly lit. In the neighborhood where her parents live–an odd mix of rural farmsteads and million dollar homes, I call the Wal Mart the Royal Stables. While that’s largely because community building code dictates that the exterior look a certain way–much like an idyllic barn–inside, it is the nicest Wal Mart I’ve ever visited. The staff are not surly and inattentive. Rather, they are helpful, good natured, and responsive.
The same can be said of the Grasslands Kroger (aka The Far Side Kroger) just down the street. It’s older and has a bit more of the local personality of slightly askew country manners, but its offerings are by far more sumptuous than any Kroger’s I’ve visited elsewhere. It isn’t just that they cater to the buying power of their client base. That, I can completely understand. Shoppers with more money will almost always choose to purchase higher quality products–which almost always cost more as well. The difference is less well-defined than that.
The Whole Foods was overwhelming to me. The sheer number of variations and offerings threatened to swamp my tender sensibilities. I never even knew there were so many different types of Tom’s toothpaste. Generally, I’ve only ever seen a few that are standard issue at the places where I do my shopping. The produce was, of course, intensely colored and mouthwateringly beautiful. The array of nuts, seeds, lentils and other bulk products dazzled me. And the gluten free options overflowed. I simply never knew there were so many products–from pasta to cupcakes–available for purchase. And everything was like that. Everything.
Don’t Be Poor if You Have Autoimmune Disorders
So, now that you have some idea of the types of food shopping available in the nicer areas of the region where I live, please allow me to provide you with a grasp of why it makes me a bit uneasy. In the less affluent areas, Kroger, Wal Mart, and even Whole Foods do exist. Depending on the neighborhood, your options for produce or alternative nutritional needs are going to be limited. The term Food Desert refers to urban areas where produce options are either extremely limited, absent, or priced out of the purchase range of most who shop at various establishments.
A specific example of this would Celiac Disease–no, not “gluten sensitivity” but the actual autoimmune disorder. Do you have any idea of how many products–from ice cream to makeup–contain wheat gluten for no discernible reason? Having alternatives that allow an individual not to bleed from the intestines and actually absorb nutrients becomes a central preoccupation. Foods that are naturally gluten free–produce, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, meat–seem to either be rather expensive or scarce and lacking variety. Even having places where the option exists to purchase nut flours, gluten-free pastas and breads, or prepared foods that are guaranteed to be free of gluten becomes something of a scavenger hunt.
Now, hamstring any individual with legitimate dietary needs further by limiting their range of forage and purchasing power as defined by their economic status. They may perforce shop at the nearest Whole Foods store when they can afford it, but usually, they make do with what they can find at whatever market is nearest to them. When you consider that time is money, especially for those caught in a pattern of low-wage work, searching for foods that offer necessary nutrition takes up an exorbitant amount of time. Add to this the fact that most foods available to those with specific health needs also require more extensive preparation and time, and this winds up perpetuating the living situation of an individual who simply wants to be able to eat.
Financial Viability and Moral Worth
Most of the foods that are readily available to those in less affluent neighborhoods are absolute shit. No one should eat them. But people do, and I understand why. It’s not that I have no issues with people who have more money demanding more and better options. My uneasiness is less easily defined than that. It lies in the nebulous realization that morality and virtue are often conflated with economic viability and purchasing power.
The thing of it is that the options available at store branches that are located in more prosperous areas are more than simply a symbol of economic prosperity. Udi’s products are, in fact, available at most Kroger’s, Whole Foods, and Wal Marts that I’m aware of–not to mention other grocery chain stores I have yet to visit or have not mentioned in this segment. They are comparably priced–around five dollars for a loaf of standard gluten free sandwich bread–in any location. What blows my mind is the sheer presence of variety, of options within a single brand or product type.
It’s not because only wealthy people have Celiac and other disorders, allergies, or, in the case of many products and produce, simply want to eat better and improve their overall health. What we, in this area particularly, are doing is offering not simply the best food to the wealthiest buyers, but also the cheapest options of good food. What’s up with that? How, simply because of a demographic or individual net worth, are those in one neighborhood more worthy of a broader array of choices for their foods, cleaning products, and toiletries? If they offer two varieties of Tom’s at a Whole Foods in a less well-to-do area, then why not other choices as well?
If you want to dismiss this as simply evidence that purchase power of an area’s key demographic allows a store to offer more variety, consider this. In wealthier neighborhoods the branches of these stores are cleaner, more brightly lit, more attractively staged, and the employees are almost always more deferential–to the point of behaving sycophantically. Do people who earn less somehow not warrant as pleasant and rewarding a shopping experience as those who bring in a larger paycheck? Or is it a subtle admission that those branches in poorer neighborhoods simply feel they have to try less to earn clientele? If anything, those with less to spend who are nevertheless determined to purchase quality foods and products for their homes, deserve it more. It’s their custom that companies should vie for. Wealthy clientele will come and go as they wish–and if a company’s branding appeals to them, they’ll continue to spend money, and lots of it. What’s with the parallel business plans that offers less to those who have less?
Printed at the bottom of every Whole Foods receipt is the phrase, “Values Matter.” I think what we need to ask is whether the values we support, by condoning subtle statements inequality and substantiating an economically skewed version of moral worth, are the right ones.