Why are some people's yards full of junk?
April 19, 2005 10:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm not sure if there's a PC way to ask this, but here goes: why are the properties of the economically disadvantaged so often replete with a miscellany of objects of questionable utility and/or value?

In other words, why are poor people's yards often full of junk? I KNOW it's a stereotype, and I KNOW it's not always the case, but living in a poor state (NM), you see it left and right. I'm not talking about being able to afford a nice house in a nice part of town where the city keeps the streets clean. I'm talking about four cars up on blocks, kids' toys everywhere, piles of scrap lumber and metal, and, yes, the occasional disembowelled washing machine. I am genuinely curious - what is the psychological/socioeconomic mechanism behing this?
posted by gottabefunky to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You know what a pain in the ass it is to haul a washing machine to the dump? It's not cheap, either. Much easier to just leave it in the yard until you move out and then the landlord can deal with it.
posted by cmonkey at 10:35 AM on April 19, 2005

Stuff is being kept for parts/projects? Middle class people have higher incomes and (a) can afford better quality junk, and (b) can afford larger houses/garages to keep their junk inside and out of sight?
posted by carter at 10:36 AM on April 19, 2005

I've been approximately that poor, and while I can't claim to speak for everyone in such circumstances perhaps I can provide some insight:

When your net worth is low, the tiny but nonzero value of a disemboweled washing machine is can be more significant than it would be to a person of better means. It's still a potential asset. If you've got a line on some cheap lumber or 50% of the parts you need to build a working car, and have living circumstances that allow you to keep these things, it might be worthwhile (or at least perceived to be worthwhile) to invest in them.
posted by majick at 10:37 AM on April 19, 2005

Aren't the properties of the economically advantaged often also replete with a miscellany of objects of questionable utility and/or value?

To stick to the question, however, what majick said. The marginal utility of junk is much greater to the poor than to the rich.
posted by beagle at 10:42 AM on April 19, 2005

School in the summer.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 10:42 AM on April 19, 2005

Maybe it has something to do with pride of ownership-- it's don't own your home, what do you care what it looks like?

Or, on the flipside, maybe cheap-things-that-break-and-become-junk are being marketed specifically to poor people, and when theses things do inevitably break, people are a hesitant to just get rid of an object that spent such a high percentage of their discretionary income on?
posted by lalalana at 10:53 AM on April 19, 2005

As to kids' toys everywhere, well, I haven't had kids under the circumstances described, but if your landscape is already littered with various items of fairly low aesthetic value are you really all that likely to prompt the children to put their stuff away? Possibly, but I'd submit that it's less probable than it would be otherwise. You're likely to have other more pressing daily concerns than where the tricycle is parked.
posted by majick at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2005

Also, rich people have the luxury of paying for spaces devoted just to storage of things--spare bedrooms, attics and basements, extra closets, 2-4 car garage, off-site storage facilities, etc. Whereas, when you're poor, every bit of livabable or semi-livable space is too valuable to waste on mere objects--let alone objects with no immediate use. That shit goes outside so that there's room for people, and the things needed for daily living, inside.

Don't underestimate the cost of disposal, as cmonkey alluded to. Most local dumps charge a fee by the pound to accept items. When you're struggling to get by on what little money you've got, the last thing on your mind is hiring some hauler and then paying off the dump just so your yard can look prettied up.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:56 AM on April 19, 2005

What majick says, and also, what cmonkey says:

Much easier to just leave it in the yard until you move out and then the landlord can deal with it.

It's not really that it's easier to do this; that would imply that those of us in poverty are just too lazy to clean up. What's really more likely is that it's not their stuff. This is the kind of thing a lack of ownership results in. Let's say a neighborhood is 80% rentals. Let's say that most of the landlords who own the rentals don't live in these neighborhoods (common situation). Let's also say that the landlords would rather make a simpler, faster, more reliable buck by turning the property over frequently than going the alternate route: investing in improvements to the property in hopes of attracting a wealthier tenant demographic.

What happens when owners make those decisions is that the renters get the lowest end of the deal. Yes, their property is cheap, and when your wages are extremely low, your choice as to where to live is limited. So you rent a crappy house. The landlord doesn't care much for it. Broken things don't get repaired. Appliances don't get replaced. The house doesn't get painted. There is no such thing as a lawn service coming regularly. In towns where the garbage is not collected at curbside, the landlord is not offering to take it to the dump for you. Now, these are all things that higher-end renters, like me now, expect and even make housing choices based upon.

As the renter in a neglected rental like this, it's crystal clear to you that the owner does not consider you or even his property worthy of investment. So, when your hard-earned money is at stake, what are you going to do? Buy some paint and lumber and fix the place up? Hell no! It's not your place! You'll never see a return on that investment. Your money is too precious and needs to go to food and clothes and gas to get to work, not into a landlord's pocket.

As to the accumulation of junk -- well, the place already looks so shitty. So you pick up some chairs at the dump and put them on your porch. They are better to sit on than nothing at all, right? Then you move away to a better house. You're not taking your shitty chairs with you. They stay on the porch and gradually get broken by the next tenants. The next tenants move in and take the broken chairs and throw them in a corner of the yard. Are they going to take them to the dump? Hello no -- those aren't their chairs, and they shouldn't have to clean them up. The landlord should have removed this detritus between tenants. Then the problem becomes "Hell, there's already a pile of broken chairs out there -- so I'll throw these old broken picture frames on them, too...what's the difference."

As you can see, in my belief the problem can be directly traced to community standards for a landlord's maintenance of the property. In good neighborhoods, community standards make an effort to oppose this. In highly transient, largely-rental neighborhoods, there isn't enough of a stable community to establish and maintain a high standard. Some of this can be accomplished through legal means, and I believe that more can and should be done that way.

Also see the Broken Windows theory. It's important to carefully consider the fact that it is human nature to do only that which gets rewarded. You get away with that which goes unnoticed, unchallenged, or unpunished. We need laws that make it easier to do what's right for quality of life than what's wrong. Improving landholding and maintenance laws would reduce slumlordism, absentee ownership, and make daily life better for poor people. They have to live somewhere, you know. Now, that's where a real 'ownership society' would start.
posted by Miko at 10:58 AM on April 19, 2005

Some people are just pack rats. My dad is of some means, but refuses to get rid of his old cars. Its some kind of sickness.
posted by McBain at 11:00 AM on April 19, 2005

Two words: property values. Since a fair portion of a residential property's value is tied to location (read: the quality of the neighborhood), the social and if need be, legal pressure to maintain one's property at or near the community standard is much stronger in a "nice" neighborhood than in one where the value is determined to be of less importance or, in the case of a locale having a large percentage of rental or absentee-landlord owned properties, of no importance. Combine this with Majick's marginal utility theory, and you can pretty easily explain the phenomena.

on preview: what Miko said.
posted by Chrischris at 11:05 AM on April 19, 2005

"Maybe it has something to do with pride of ownership-- it's don't own your home, what do you care what it looks like?"

I've heard this postulated before, but I'm having a hard time swallowing it. I've owned my own home and it looked like crap all the time. The owning of the (modest, low-end) home consumed such an enormous fraction of my income that nothing was left over with which to make it beautiful; in fact, the exhaustion of keeping the home operational as a facility occluded all possibility of significant but inexpensive landscaping projects.

Whereas when renting -- regardless of my level of means -- I've always been far more careful. After all, the home is someone else's property and deserves respect, and the lower cost of renting meant I could afford the small touches that make a place more attractive inside and out. This has been true of most others I've known at various socioeconomic levels as well.

Perhaps this is just regional, an artifact of the local real estate or rental market. It's purely my own anecdotal data, but as someone who has been poor, the pride of ownership argument just doesn't ring true.

The "community standards" thing, however, fits almost precisely with my experience as a former homeowner in one of Oakland's poorer neighborhoods. Plenty of local homeowners and renters treated their property like crap -- far worse than I cared for my own home, which was minimally -- because the neighborhood was already awash in garbage and detritus.

Why put in nice landscaping if you're going to be picking McDonald's wrappers, discarded condoms, broken bottles, and articles of clothing out of it every morning?
posted by majick at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2005

Maybe it has something to do with pride of ownership-- it's don't own your home, what do you care what it looks like?

This is the interpretation I would really argue against, the socially conservative right-winger argument'they must not feel any pride'. What most homeowners mean when they say they are 'proud' of their house is 'I did work on my house -- I invested my time and money in it -- and now I get to be the one to enjoy that investment'. Pride is the result of having made a positive impact on something that is yours. When you are not going to reap the reward, it makes absolutely no economic sense to make the investment. It would be ridiculous to be proud of someone else's house!
posted by Miko at 11:13 AM on April 19, 2005

Dump trips cost money and require cars/trucks, while land is often cheap, and space is available so why not? Some towns here have dump service included in with the property tax, some do not. You still have to haul the stuff, but I swear I can see the difference between towns that offer a dump to all people who live there, and ones that have a pay-for-service dump. We have public service announcements on the radio all the time saying "don't burn trash" because for most people a fire is a fun and easy way to get rid of leftover crap, if slightly toxic. Every old farm around here has a dump pile out back with some incredibly nasty shit rotting in it, this is not a new development.

I have two couches mouldering in the high grass at my house. They are both mine. The house and land is also mine. I used to have a pickup truck that I swore I would use to take them someplace I could get rid of them, but the dump requires them to be in smaller pieces and I don't have a chainsaw. It's on my long "to do" list, but when the grass grows around them you can hardly see them and they don't bug me. I also think for a lot of our neighbors there is just no cultural value in putting things away that you are just going to take out later. We call this part of the state the "land of the perpetual garage sale" because a lot of people, both owners and renters, have a large amount of things outside that may or may not be for sale.

My neighbor has an old dump truck in his yard, which looks like it might be my yard, and people come to my house probably once every few months asking if the truck is mine and if they could buy it. I know you're mainly talking about the urban poor, but in the country, if you don't have an [expensive] storage area, the yard is your storage area. I have a barn so my disembowelled waching machine, spare wood and metal, and spare windows are inside, but I still have them.
posted by jessamyn at 11:18 AM on April 19, 2005

You know that Depression mentality, where you keep every little thing in case you suddenly have no income? It's that sort of effect. If you have a really hard time getting things, then the things you have become more valuable. I don't have a lot of money, but I know that if I throw away something that is old and worn out, there is a good chance I can eventually replace it with a new whatever-it-is.
posted by abbyladybug at 11:24 AM on April 19, 2005

My thoroughly middle-class family has a ton of old crap lying around outside, that should really be thrown away. But because we have a lot of land, and it's in the backyard, no one sees it.
posted by smackfu at 11:27 AM on April 19, 2005

As a New Mexico resident I can say that the "cars up on blocks" thing is hardly relegated to poor neighborhoods. It's found throughout many of the cities areas, including sections of trendy Nob Hill.

I've only ever lived here in Albuquerque and in Chicago and I'm thinking that "land is cheap" idea might hold some water. There are plenty of crap-ass areas in Chicago that look infintely better than even the marginal neighborhoods here.

I'm also on board with the pack-rat theory, because I know so many people who just are overwhelmed by the notion of sorting out and getting rid of that which they do not need.

In summary: hard to say. I think there are many reasons.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:32 AM on April 19, 2005

I think there might be another angle to this (not that the other posters are necessarily wrong). Poverty is linked depression, in the clinical sense of the word (depression is signified by sluggishness more than sadness), and depression is linked with squalor.

If you are poor and depressed, you might look at your cluttered yard and despair of dealing with the mess. And entropy being what it is, that becomes a vicious cycle.
posted by adamrice at 11:49 AM on April 19, 2005

At the risk of being unpopular, maybe they're just unmotivated. Which could also partly explain why they're poor.
posted by electroboy at 11:50 AM on April 19, 2005

There are some good explanations here, but one hasn't been proposed. Perhaps this is because it isn't popular. For some, not all to be sure, the reason they are poor is because of the same attitude and habits that produce a cluttered yard. In this scenario, the clutter and poverty are both symbolic of an attitude, rather than one resulting in the other.

Think about this further. Are these people fighting or yelling much? Do you see the police there regularly? Is the inside as dirty as the outside is cluttered? If any of these are true they may be further evidences of the habits of the person, not the result of poverty.
posted by kc0dxh at 12:34 PM on April 19, 2005

I suspect that the packrat / junk collector personality type is similarly present across all income levels. Richer areas are more likely to penalize the visibly messy, for many of the reasons listed above, so it’s kept in check or better concealed. I think there are many rich people who would have the same habits if they could get away with it.
posted by yorick at 12:44 PM on April 19, 2005

If your struggling to keep the electricity on it's hard to get worked up about a washer (or three) out back. At that point, what difference does a sofa or two make. If your neighbors yards all look the same and nobody is complaining, you may as well toss that old tv out there too.

During one of my poorer years I was depressed and apathetic and, essentially, living in filth. My sister pointed out to me that it doesn't cost anything to clean the toilet. Once I did the toilet (well, once she did the toilet) the sink started to bother me and the next thing I know I'm on my hands and knees scrubbing floors. Once things were clean it only seemed right to keep them that way and I noticed an immediate change in my attitude towards more important things -- like getting off my ass and going back to work.

If I had lacked a support system and everyone I knew, including my family lived the same way, I expect I would have quickly come to consider my sloth normal.

These lessons stuck and though I don't have much money, it doesn't cost much to mow the lawn and a couple of gallons of paint every few years isn't going to bankrupt me. I actually enjoy maintaining my property, it's one of the very few things I can do to improve my standard of living and self-esteem that fits into the budget of an underemployed single parent in the woods.
posted by cedar at 12:55 PM on April 19, 2005

One other thing I should have mentioned -- when you buy $50 used refrigerators because you can never manage to find the four or five hundred bucks for a good one the cost of getting rid of them is about the same as buying another. The same applies to junker cars.

If your choice is having refrigeration or paying the dump fees, which are you going to go for? Now consider how long a $50 fridge or a $500 car is going to work and it's not hard to see how this stuff can pile up.
posted by cedar at 1:02 PM on April 19, 2005

You don't need to buy something new when we have knowledge in hack welding, some scrap, and a rough idea. You don't mind the junk in the back when you need it or have a use for it.
posted by sled at 1:03 PM on April 19, 2005

The answer you're looking for is commonly referred to as the Broken Window Thesis. Essentially in poor neighborhoods all over minor problems like a broken window or stripped cars quickly snowball into a general area in decay.
posted by nixerman at 2:12 PM on April 19, 2005

We ride bikes in the Pine Barrens a lot, because it is flat and very quiet. Pineys always have a yard full of junk. One guy told us "That's my best car, and that used to be my best car, and that is the one before...." I think sled might be right, you've got a junkyard right in your yard, hack away.
posted by fixedgear at 2:16 PM on April 19, 2005

What's a good book on the culture of poverty in the US? (he said, sneaking in a free question...)
posted by craniac at 2:21 PM on April 19, 2005

Lots of reasons of course not the least of which is apathy, depression and inability. Personal perspective: I've been poor, a lot. And I'm not talking student poor or starving artist poor I'm talking "can I afford to heat the generic macaroni" poor more than I like to think about.

I'm also a fairly handy person and not afraid of learning a new skill or getting dirty. When your poor like that you jump at the chance to aquire a dozen 2X6s left over from your neighbour's deck or that half dozen pieces of pipe from the dumpster down the street[1]. You may not have a use for them the instant you can aquire them for nothing but when you want to build a sand box and swing set for your kids the fact you didn't have to pay for raw materials allows you to actually build the project.

Another side aspect of this is the enviromental angle. It pisses me off to no end how much perfectly good materials and goods are buried just because people can't be bothered to free cycle them or something and are afraid to have a little pile of lumber in their back yard.. Spend a couple hours at a local "waste management facility" thinking "is there anything coming off that truck I would buy if it was at the local second hand store?" If you don't I'd be surprised. And really, can you think of anything more useless and wasteful of material and time than a suburban front lawn? I'd much rather have a compost pile or pile of reclaimed glass awaiting a green house project in that space.

Also it's a hard habit to break once you start moving up. It drives my wife crazy some of the stuff I'll save because 15 years ago I couldn't afford to buy it.

[1]For example there is over $50 of angle iron in a metal double bed frame and a cruise thru dumpsters where students rent at the end of a semeter will net you as many as you can drag home. It's of really poor quality so you can't weld it but that doesn't matter cause you are probably so poor you can afford the welder and consumable inputs anyways but you can often scavange bolts from discarded equipement.
posted by Mitheral at 2:58 PM on April 19, 2005

What's a good book on the culture of poverty in the US?

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Growing Up in the Other America By Alex Kotlowitz.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools By Jonathan Kozol.
posted by mlis at 3:06 PM on April 19, 2005

Er, well, some of us actually like the look of all that junk in our yards. Sorry if some of you think there is some a priori aesthetic principle that proscribes that; there isn't. Four cars up on blocks looks like a world of possibilities to me. A bare lawn is just boring.

You might just as well ask why middle-class suburbanites are so anal about their yards: no dandelions in the lawn, no clutter in the garage, no accoutrements of any kind that might hint that the owner has a scrap of imagination...
posted by bricoleur at 3:16 PM on April 19, 2005

Wow, those are some interesting, thoughtful answers. I'm glad this stayed civil. Thanks!
posted by gottabefunky at 3:18 PM on April 19, 2005

I wonder if being a packrat is a gut reaction to our consumer society. We know intuitively that throwing away an item that has had so much energy invested in it is wrong,( mine the raw material, transport it, design it, manufacture it, package it, transport it again, stock the shelfs, etc.) even if it is a tupperware lid with no bottom. Perhaps when you work with your hands, which low income persons are more likely to do, this influences you more.

Or perhaps since we live in a society were worth is measure by what we posses the more you have the better you think you will feel. If all you can afford is junk then that's better then nothing.

If you are low income junk has more value too.

I suppose those are reasons for collection the stuff and some of why we don't get rid of it. Speaking as someone who has had to move, organize, clean up and cart to the dump heaps of stuff I have collected I can say that the collecting is the easy part. If you are poor and pulled in too many directions already, getting rid of your junk just will not be that high on your list of priorities, especially if it feels like a waste, or if some of your self esteem is wrapped up in it. That my seem strange, the self esteem part, but you did make the decision to buy it at one time.
posted by flummox at 5:51 PM on April 19, 2005

It's nice to hear from the resourceful handy folk. In thinking about my earlier posts I completely forgot about my grandfather. Although he and my grandmother retired with a nice nest egg and lived in a lovely lake house, behind the lake house was a garage containing massive amounts of old pipe, car parts, rusty cans of nuts and bolts, bed coils, old keys, cigar boxes, tools, plumbing bits, etc. etc. etc. Around and outside the garage, with weeds growing between, were old lawn chairs, longer pieces of pipe, old car roof racks, and so on. To my grandfather, who was a master plumber and who had lived through the Depression, this was not junk but a demonstrably valuable economic resource.

He would often donate his skills and materials to the other retirees -- fix their plumbing, fix their roof -- and he would barter his work for things they wanted to offer, like delicious homemade cakes and home-canned produce, big bags of corn on the cob or gallons of blueberries, whatever else they had around. He also used all these 'spare parts' to invent new things: He invented a free-standing outdoor fish fryer, for instance, which ran on propane and fried up delicious perch in seconds. He also invented a mini-pea sheller, with two small rollers. You'd insert a pea pod, the pod would drop away and the peas would run down a little chute. Fascinating.

When he died in 1993, we had to go through the garage. To us it looked like a bunch of junk, because we didn't know the difference between a valve and a flange or know metric pipe from standard. But the things my grandfather could do with it were pretty wonderful. Thanks to the other recyclers, rescuers, and re-inventors for reminding me about that.
posted by Miko at 6:52 PM on April 19, 2005

Depression is one part; packrattery seems to be more of an OCD thing, though. My mother is a social worker, here in our middle-sized, mostly middle-class town, and about once a month they have a case of godawful Clutter that would singe your nose off.

Then again, my own family has it in spades; we just keep it from being a legal issue. We've got a house, another house, and half a duplex, all devoted to Stuff -- most of it best disposed of, at this point. (If the spaces had been fully rented the entire time they've been used as storage, they'd have a quarter of a million dollars more in the bank.) There's no time to put together the rummage sale; sometimes there's no time to fill up the trailer and hit the dump. This was something my parents would all have dealt with in their prime, but today they're past retirement age, and can't even be bothered to get out and look at the property most days -- it's too depressing. If you do that you're immediately confronted with all the problems you have to work on -- this crumbling foundation, that squirrel hole in the eave, the collapsing railroad-tie wall, the dead grass, the dandelions. That ends up being my job, alas.

I think for a lot of people, the intent isn't to have a space full of clutter. But it creeps up on them.
posted by dhartung at 10:31 PM on April 19, 2005

The Corner by David Simon might satisfy your book needs as well.
posted by drezdn at 10:34 PM on April 19, 2005


When you have no money you feel cornered. If you have STUFF, you can always make something.

Although I agree with the clutter/ocd diagnosis. My mom does that.
posted by craniac at 7:51 AM on April 20, 2005

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