home Commentary, Economy, North America, Politics Why Viral Videos Of Poor Kids Are Just Modern-day Poverty Porn

Why Viral Videos Of Poor Kids Are Just Modern-day Poverty Porn

Humans have been enjoying poverty porn for millennia, and the West has refined it to an elevated art, with no nation more infamous for it than the United States. These consumers drool over pictures of impoverished African communities, ‘sponsor’ low-income children in Central America, and smugly enjoy feel-good stories about anonymous donors paying off Walmart layaway balances. For the wealthy and middle class, there seems to be something strangely soothing about caring for the ‘less fortunate’ by offering charity and platitudes rather than actually addressing the institutional violence that leads to and perpetuates poverty in the first place — why pay taxes when you can get a photo op at the food bank?

The latest feel-good video making the rounds is from Atlanta, where a group of low-income children were asked to choose between gifts for themselves or gifts for their families during the ‘holiday season,’ by which people in the US mean ‘Christmas.’ An offering from UP TV, which advertises itself as a channel to ‘uplift, entertain, and inspire,’ the film comes complete with tinkly piano music and a sobering text opener — 83 percent of the children in the video, we learn, didn’t have Christmas trees in their homes this year, as though this measure of poverty is supposed to tear at the heart.

Nothing about, for example, the food insecurity that means many of those children will likely be spending Christmas hungry or eating cast-offs from the wealthy. Nothing about cramped living conditions that force those families to live packed into homes where children rarely have separate bedrooms and sometimes don’t even have bedrooms at all. Nothing about the shocking conditions in Atlanta schools located in low-income neighbourhoods. Nothing about the poor health care for low-income children in Atlanta and across America. Nothing about racial disparities and poverty. Nothing about the racism and xenophobia targeted at refugee children who may or may not even celebrate Christmas. The important measure, the one deemed accessible for the viewer, is whether families can afford a dead tree to prop up in their living rooms.

Each child is asked what they want for Christmas, followed by what their family members want, and then offered both presents. The off-screen narrator informs the child, though, that there’s a catch — you can’t have it all when you’re a member of the suffering poor, and if you want a handout, you’ll need to pick just one. Moreover, of course, the ‘uplifting’ film is calculated in such a way that it’s clear there’s only one right answer. The child who choses a gift for herself is a selfish and unappreciative child, even though she lives in a setting where she may not have anything to her name, not a book, not a doll, not a LEGO set. The child who gifts something to her family, however, is the spirit of Christmas sacrifice, willing to give it up for the people she loves for the greater good.

All of the children pick for their families, sometimes very decisively and without hesitation. Their choices reflect not just the social pressure that surrounds low-income people, but the general trend of higher generosity in low-income communities than in wealthy ones, which is something conveniently ignored in the video. Poor people, who have less to give, are more generous with what they have, especially when working in solidarity with their communities. This is often cast, though, as noble sacrifice, rather than common sense and the notion that each should give according to their ability and take according to their needs. The United States has created a heated battleground between rich and poor, and low-income people know that the only defense is found through working together against a common enemy. Class war is alive and well in the US, as this saccharine piece of exploitative poverty porn illustrates.

Of course, the twist of the short film is that the children are allowed to take home both gifts, receiving presents for themselves as a reward for their selflessness and reinforcing the idea that the viewer should be wiping away a tear for the poor children and frowning upon those who would choose for themselves first. Thus the video concludes, with no information on why these children come from such low-income backgrounds, or material on how to effectively fight poverty. The children in the film are exploited for entertainment value, treated as toys themselves rather than human beings.

Surprisingly for such videos, which are usually followed with a storm of praise and thumbs up from inspired viewers, Washington Post commenters met the video by and large with antipathy, correctly identifying it as a ‘despicable experiment,’ ‘exploitative and disgusting,’ ‘incredibly cruel,’ ‘cheap TV sentimentality,’ and ‘simply indecent.’ It could be viewed as evidence that the dystopian future we’ve all feared is finally upon us, but for this: It simply falls into a long tradition of similar presentations in the media around the holidays, where low-income children are used for tearjerker entertainment and then put back out on the streets, and poor people are used for entertainment.

First we had the Dickensian narratives and the slumming tours, then the heart-warming Christmas stories of the 1950s, and now the viral videos of poor kids being ‘shocking’ or ‘stunning,’ just like this one. This runs alongside a history not just of using poor people as inspirational entertainment, but actively mocking low-income people and those from impoverished backgrounds. Beverly Hillbillies, popular in the 1960s, trafficked upon notions about people from poor, rural backgrounds, and so does Dukes of Hazzard, a show many criticise for its racism without exploring the fact that it also relies on stereotypes about a poor, white South and its people. Today, Duck Dynasty proved so popular in part because before the fame and endorsement deals, its stars also came from disadvantaged backgrounds, and viewers found their lives and cultural mannerisms charming and quaint (until they became too conservative for liberal tastes to bear, at which point they ceased being funny, evidently).

The United States relishes a good poverty narrative, a reminder that we all like to see our friends get ahead…but not too far ahead. This kind of content in the modern era is presented for the same reason it was 100 years ago: Because it goes viral, generating huge revenues for the parent publication. The concern in 1915 wasn’t pageviews and clickthroughs, social shares and uniques, but it amounts to the same thing. Poverty sells, and poverty is highly profitable — for rich people, at any rate.