Is Tiny Living a Form of Poverty Appropriation?

CC BY 2.0. Curtis Perry

There is a big difference between living in a tiny house by choice and living in it because you really can't afford anything bigger.

Last week in the TreeHugger daily newsletter, Lloyd wrote, “Fortunately we all agree about cute tiny homes and sheds.” There was a time when I thought so, too. After all, the tiny house pictures and adorable, creatively simple dwellings are among the most popular posts on this website. Readers are drawn to that minimalist lifestyle, whether they adopt aspects of it themselves or just want to imagine and romanticize what it would be like to live that simply.

After reading an article by writer July Westhale called “The Troubling Trendiness of Poverty Appropriation,” however, I’ve been forced to reconsider Lloyd’s statement. “Tiny Living” and the minimalism that goes along with it may be appealing and trendy to many middle-class people, but it has complicated associations for those who have had tiny living forced upon them by lack of resources. There’s a big difference between tiny living by choice and tiny living by necessity.

Westhale draws on her rough, poverty-stricken childhood in a trailer park in rural California, where she lived in a corrugated home with extended family around, eating canned and frozen food and rice to the point where she can’t stand rice anymore. It is not a life that anyone in their right mind would choose freely, if given the option of greater comfort and stability, which is why Westhale finds the recent increase of fascination with trailer-park-style living very offensive.

“How many folks, I wonder, who have engaged in the Tiny House Movement ever actually lived in a tiny, mobile place? Because what those who can afford homes call ‘living light,’ poor folks call ‘gratitude for what we’ve got’.”

There are various reasons for why people choose to live Tiny – young professionals who can’t afford houses in overinflated markets; environmentalists who want to minimize their carbon footprint; nomadic, anti-establishment, and minimalist types who don’t wish to be tied down or want to take a stance against capitalism, among others.

“It’s likely, from where I sit, that this back-to-nature and boxed-up simplicity is not being marketed to people like me, who come from simplicity and heightened knowledge of poverty, but to people who have not wanted for creature comforts. For them to try on, glamorize, identify with.”

And ultimately leave, once the novelty wears off and the desire for comfort and more space kicks in. Or if they decide to have kids and no longer want to squeeze into a miniature home with multiple offspring bouncing off the walls.

There is nothing simple about being poor.

While Westhale’s feelings are understandable, there is also much to be admired about the way in which some poor people manage their lifestyles. Take my grandmother, for example, who grew up in a poverty-stricken farming family during the Depression. That experience greatly shaped the way in which she has economized food, clothes, fuel, and money, and constantly “made do” with what she had for her entire life.

As people become more aware of the negative environmental impact of the Western consumerist lifestyle, an increasing number (including myself) are turning to old-fashioned ways of doing things (reusing, repurposing, preserving, sewing, knitting, etc.) in order to tread more lightly. That could be interpreted as “poverty appropriation,” but it’s really more of a re-implementation of lost skills that makes more sense than maintaining the status quo and is meant to be respectful.

It’s a complex and uncomfortable conversation to have, and one that will not be resolved in a post like this. While I don’t think that underprivileged people should be offended that other, more well-off individuals may choose to live with fewer material possessions, Westhale points out the tremendous importance of being aware that others do not have the same range of lifestyle choices. She concludes:

“We need to shed light on the fact that many people who grew up wanting for more space and access to foods that weren’t available to them don’t understand the glossy pamphlets offering a simpler life. Because, let me tell you, there is nothing simple about being poor.”