Reflection and Response – Poverty Appropriation

You’ve heard of cultural appropriation, but have you heard of poverty appropriation? Like cultural appropriation, poverty appropriation is tied to the power, privilege, and the choice of the dominant culture to co-opt elements of a marginalized group for their own profit, entertainment, and/or benefit — examples include distressed clothing, tiny houses, and “cheap” food. We have summarized below some of the main arguments for and against poverty appropriation. After reading, please fill out this brief survey and tell us what you think.

The term ‘poverty appropriation’ was coined by July Westhale in a 2015 blog post that received many responses arguing for both sides of the issue.



Those who want poverty appropriation to stop argue that:

  • Some people don’t have the privilege of choice; they are poor and live in small houses and wear torn clothes; it is something the poor get shamed for while the privileged get praised for being “simple.”
  • The privileged spend a lot of money to buy distressted clothing or live “simple” but never give a thought to how their consumerist choices harm the poor often via unintended negative consequences.
  • High-end designers get rich from imitating how the poor look (e.g. hobo chic, holey, white t-shirts or tennis shoes held together by duct tape) while the poor do not hold patent rights over their “style” and will not be compensated.
  • Sandblasting (the process that gives clothes that sought-after distressed look) can be very harmful. Denim workers laboring in poor conditions often contract illnesses like lung silicosis that could even lead to death. Though there have been bans on sandblasting, the unnecessarily high demand of distressed clothing keeps the process alive.
  • Middle class people who dumpster-dive and take food drop-offs choose to claim these resources out of want, not out of need. In the process they deprive the people who  need the food from the dumpsters to simply stay alive.
  • Poverty and orphanage tourism incentivizes orphanages to stay poor, because that’s what privileged people travel to look at and take pictures of.
  • Tiny homes aren’t alleviating housing insecurity and environmental degradation when they are designed for and marketed at young, trendy, upwardly-mobile people.

Those who object to the term and concept of poverty appropriation, argue that:

  • Self-expression should not be censored.
  • Some people worked hard to earn privilege of choice, and they should not have to give it up.
  • This is just another example of society exaggerating political correctness.
  • These choices are not intended to glamorize, romanticize, or ridicule poor people.
  • People’s reasons for poverty appropriation are innocent, positive even (e.g. to be minimalist, hipster, millennial, trendy, young, hip, cool, anti-capitalist, financially-responsible in some cases, environmentally-friendly, a potential fix to housing issues, etc.).
  • It’s unrealistic to expect people to buy new clothes every time theirs get ripped or worn.
  • Poor people aren’t worried about what rich people are doing with their money; they have a lot of other things to worry about.

What are your thoughts? Please share with us – fill out this brief survey. We will publish our community’s responses in the next issue.