Why the poor cannot afford to be minimalists

Letting go of material things is a great notion - for the middle class; but for people who are not so well off, the thought of opting to have even less is not really an option.


Suddenly, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Ms Marie Kondo and her mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and, ironically, a small library's worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.

To its advocates, decluttering, or "minimalism", is about more than just maximising space. "By clearing the clutter from life's path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution," say hosts of The Minimalists podcast Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.

But minimalism is a virtue only when it is a choice, and it is telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class.

For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.

I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large television sets and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust.

I was alone and isolated most days, and at night, I concentrated on the three or four online classes I took through a local community college. My daughter and I had about US$50 in spending money a month.Over the course of a year, and after seeing how the other half lived, I started to recognise that by having less, by trying to find joy in what little things life brings, we were living a somewhat happier life. Or, I assumed we were, after noticing while cleaning bathrooms that my clients tended to be on several medications for depression, pain and sleeplessness.

In some ways, I was practising what minimalism preaches.

But it did not make me happy. And I imagine for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism's principles do not sit well either.

Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?

I had to downsize severely several years ago when my daughter and I moved into a 400-sq-ft studio.

I had no usable wall space, and although my boss gave me temporary storage space in her garage over the summer, I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I could not afford to store all of these items - which had value to me only as a record of my history - including mementoes from my parents.

My stuff was not just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I had done as a child that my mum had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mum had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska.

I have grown to appreciate living in a small space over the past decade, even after having another child.

I now keep a 667-sq-ft apartment clean, and cannot imagine the responsibility of doing the same to two or three times the space. But it would be nice for my girls to have their own rooms, and a yard to run around in. It would be nice to have a real couch that is not a futon I have held on to for several years. I hunt for deals, and hurry to Walmart whenever there is a sale.

And that is the other class element lurking behind minimalism's facade. In a new documentary about the movement, "bad" consumption is portrayed by people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday for the best deals.

They are, we are led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores do not necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor - let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things - are all beyond my means.

That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those are not wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they do not need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes.

To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those are not the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They cannot afford to do with less.


  • The writer is a writing fellow at the Centre for Community Change. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline Why the poor cannot afford to be minimalists. Subscribe