The Taste of Empire

One of the most interesting parts of The Taste of Empire is about tea. The book explains that poor British workers often spent a tenth of their annual income on tea and on sugar for that tea. Upperclass would-be reformers were shocked to discover this. Surely the uneducated poor just needed to be told that wasting money on luxuries like tea and sugar was the reason they stay poor! If only some well-meaning reformer could teach those uneducated masses about health and budgeting!

It’s the same conversation we keep hearing now. Surely, the uneducated rural poor just need to be told that they’re wasting money on soda. If only some well-meaning reformer could teach these uneducated poor about health and budgeting!  Surely, young, working, urban poor need to be told that buying coffee or avocado toast is the reason they stay poor. (Never mind that the fresh veg and whole grains of avocado toast are exactly what the rural poor are supposed to be buying.) Now, as then, certain reformers are sure that poor people just make bad spending decisions and would immediately change their habits if only they knew better.

Well-meaning reformers failed to realize that poor workers had no access to common grazing land after the Enclosures, so they could no longer keep cows or sheep. City life meant little to no space for a  vegetable garden or chickens, especially for those who’d come to the city seeking work and stayed in temporary lodgings. No woods meant no foraging for firewood, which meant a hit meal was more expensive. With no access to meat, eggs, dairy, or vegetables, many workers lived on bread. Even that was difficult, as the price of grain rose much faster than wages. The warmth, sweetness and calorie boost of a cup of tea was a great addition to an unvaried, not particularly nutritious diet.

Drinking tea reflected working long hours on a poor diet, with little access to nourishing meals or other comforts. This was a sign of the extreme poverty in the working classes, not a sign of the reckless spending.

Anyway, just something to think about when the next thinkpiece about the wasteful poors buying soda and coffee comes out.

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