What if you had a choice between living on the sidewalk or the formal economy? Many people in would choose the formal economy without second guessing themselves. Even if individuals were facing difficulties in the formal economy, they would never resort to living on the sidewalks and working because it becomes a burden when trying to be accepted in society. However, that is not the case for some individuals. Many people resort to the sidewalk life to escape from the current life that they live in. They feel a sense of urgency to find a direction in life by finding commonalties with those of similar backgrounds.
Also, another reason why they feel that they should escape from the formal economy is because they feel unaccepted in their current society. In the book Sidewalk, written by Mitchell Duneier, he provides a study of sidewalk life in New York, which includes panhandlers, street vendors, and other workers on the streets.
Duneier takes in account the different perspective of these employed individuals on the sidewalks. In this paper, I will show the reasons why many street vendors believe that it is a matter of choice to live on the sidewalk and the implications of perceiving it as a choice. A common perception that many people have is that everyone has a choice when it comes to living on the sidewalk.
This is a misconception because many people were force to abandon their lives. Duneier states “in choosing to work on the street, Hakim had clearly made what would be radical, if not entirely incomprehensible, decision,” in order to show the irrationality of their choice (pg 23). Yet, through the eyes of the street vendors, this choice of lifestyle was chosen by the individuals themselves, even when it was considered irrational.
These individuals hold onto the perception of choice using the same logic that “people whom society considers respectable who…[also] choose to sleep where their jobs are” such as small business owners that live above their retail shop (pg 170). Since these “respectable” people were given choice to sleep at their workplace to ensure security, these street vendors believe that it is equally acceptable for them to choose to utilize the sidewalk as residence and place of work. In addition, by perceiving their unconventional lifestyle as a preference over the formal economy, sidewalk vendors can claim that they have control over at least one aspect in their life.
Being dispossessed has demeaning effects upon a person’s self-image and identity, so the street vendors seek to redeem their reputation by attributing their economic state to choice. Just like much of society, they confabulate the situation in order to feel better about themselves. By saying that one had the power to choose, instead of being a victim of circumstance, he can avoid the sense of pity and embarrassment that results from homelessness. Another reason why street vendors identify their sidewalk lifestyle as a choice is because of their self-presentation of their ideal social identity.
For them, “the entrepreneurial activity – more than the person’s unhoused state – is central to personal identity,” which means that they value their identity as vendors and businessmen over their actual identity of being homeless (pg 168). The reason why they want to emphasize their role as businessmen and stress the fact that it is their choice to live on the streets is because they want to avoid the negative connotation that society has inflicted upon them.
They have control of their lives by distancing themselves from the stigma that is placed on them by society. When referring to the street vendors Marvin and Ron and their practice of bartering with customers, Duneier states “though his work may place him at the bottom of the American class hierarchy, he nevertheless feels a satisfaction more usually associated with jobs that are higher in the hierarchy” (pg 68). Marvin and Ron’s refusal of selling the magazines for the customer’s price shows their power to determine the price as if the value of the magazine reflects their self worth.
This “satisfaction” that they feel is due to the self-esteem and self-respect that they gain from their perception of having the power to make decisions and choices. In effect, the perception of choice is justified by street vendors as a means of redeeming their reputation as an element in selective self-presentation. Likewise, the perception of choice prevents the street vendor from doubting his decision and makes it more difficult for them to return to conventional society in the formal economy.
Choices require opportunity costs, such as time and thought, as well as sacrifices, which can mean abandoning possessions and loved ones. Although people would rather make no choice than a wrong one, once the choice is made, the individual is unlikely to change the decision. Through confabulation, the street vendors fabricate more reasons to justify their decision in order to avoid having to change their mind. As the vendor Mudrick puts it, “listen, a bed is made to sleep in. I don’t sleep in it. I’m not used to it. I don’t want to get used to it. I got a choice.
I gonna stay on the street…Once you’re homeless, you’re always homeless” (pg 166). In his assertion of choosing to continue in a state of dispossession, Mudrick reflects a certain stubbornness that is expected for people who have made significant life decisions and refuse to reassess their options. Furthermore, Duneier explains that “the person who regularly makes the decision to remain on the sidewalk overnight has a vocabulary for expressing its acceptability to him” (pg 165).
By this statement, he implies that sidewalk life becomes increasingly tolerable the longer an individual chooses to remain there due to the resocialization into new norms. Having a stubborn mindset combined with increasing acceptance to an unconventional lifestyle diminishes the likelihood that street vendors and other sidewalk figures will choose to integrate back into regular society. In effect, the population of homeless is unlikely to decrease. Due to that fact that society will never accept the personal choice of living on the streets, many implications arise concerning the safety of the street life and also the likelihood of returning to conventional society.
When street vendors willingly enter the informal economy, they will be less likely to make situational attributions that shift the blame of their current fate to contextual factors. This means that street vendors avoid the bitter feeling of victimization because they chose this lifestyle for themselves. The lack of bitterness is what separates some vendors apart from others that are out in society in order to avenge their lowered economic standing.
Duneier states “although the act of picking through recycled trash…appears to create disorder, which might lead to crime, I have rarely seen any crime spring from this environment” (pg 79). Therefore, contrary to the assumption that disorder creates crime, which is conceptualized as the “Broken Window Theory,” Duneier distinguishes the street vendors from troublemakers mainly because the former group lacks a grudge against society. Had the vendors felt wronged by being forced into the informal economy, they would be more likely to pursue behaviors that were detrimental to public safety.
In this aspect, perceiving the sidewalk lifestyle as an intentional choice rather than a forced obligation inhibits the ill feelings towards the conventional and formal economy responsible for crime. In short, people of the informal economy have various motives for perceiving destitution as a choice. They want to believe that they have some form of control over their life and they also hope to avoid the pitiful “homeless” identity. As a result of this perception, they lack malicious intention and indirectly decrease public crime, yet because it is seen as a choice, they are not willing to return to regular society, as it will imply that they had made the wrong decision.
Courtney from Study Moose
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