Disadvantages to Consumerism
For farm families, consumerism affects farm survival in difficult economic times. In ordinary years, expenses for a lavish lifestyle or such expenses as vehicles for children may be sustained by farm income, depending on the scale of farm. But in crisis years when losses are high, frugal families with a larger cushion of savings have an advantage. They may be able to cover losses more easily and still have sufficient cash flow to continue operation without renewed borrowing. Families that prefer a more modest lifestyle, and thereby avoid farm expansion and the use of hired hands, find that in crisis times, their overhead is lower and they can get by with, as they would put it, a “tighter belt.” Several studies have found that families that had tried to “keep up with the Joneses…to prove that one is ’making it”’ (Bennett, 1982) were later at a disadvantage in the slump of the 1980s.
Similar disadvantages to consumerism can affect non-farm families as well. When jobs are unstable, families benefit from a cushion of savings. Though they also benefit from the ability to keep up with an expected lifestyle and to take their place socially with a particular desired group, if that status is vulnerable to sudden changes in income, a more modest lifestyle can be better sustained until work is found again. Consumerism that is based on credit is particularly disadvantageous in hard times.
The emphasis on consumption as a marker of self-worth is lamented by some researchers who argue it obscures the real sources of economic power and production by focusing on objects (Gartman, 1986). Consumerism can be seen as part of the capitalist political economy in which worker exploitation and discontent are masked by a societal focus on lifestyle. But the increasing consumerism of rural America reflects as well the emergence of more fluid stratification and a somewhat more democratic order, especially when compared to the early eras of land barons, bonanza farms and sharecropping. Though rural history varies greatly by region, in many parts of the U.S. there existed a period of sharp rural stratification in wealth, in which consumption standards were very low for a significant portion of the population. Today’s emphasis on consumerism reflects a softening of the rigidity of those boundaries, and aspirations among a broader range of families that they might participate in a middle class standard of living. At the same time, in the last decade, some rural areas have seen the rise of a new impoverished population and, of course, other areas such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas or areas of industrial agriculture in California have continued to be home to extremely poor groups of landless agricultural workers, as well as more consumption-oriented property owners.