Home > economics > The class warfare of Halloween

The class warfare of Halloween

October 24, 2014

What’s the best thing about Halloween, the dress-up or the candy? Or is it the fact that, for that one night, you can go up to people’s houses and ring their bell and talk to them when they answer the door, and if you’re a kid you can even get demand and receive a gift? (Update: I asked my 6-year-old this question and he answered immediately: “it’s eating the candy afterwards.”)

For me it’s always been about the way social rules get thrown out the window and there’s a celebration of generosity and neighborliness. Costumes are the excuse to tell each other how amazing they look, and candy is the excuse to symbolically exchange a token of friendship.

I pretty much had kids in part so I could start going trick-or-treating again, that’s how much I love it. And yes, I went trick-or-treating well into my teens, it was embarrassing for everyone except my best friends who went with me. Near the end there we’d use the phrase “tricks or beer!” just to make fun of ourselves at being too old to do it. But it was addictive and magical nonetheless because of the human interactions and the broken rules. Thrilling.

Even when I was a grown-up and before I had kids, I was super psyched to live in Somerville, Massachusetts where the trick-or-treating was an intense activity – people would drive to my street with piles of trick-or-treaters because we had the exact right density of buildings and everyone on the block would sit outside cheering on the little groups of candy-grabbers. Later on the older kids would come, and we’d leave whatever was left of our stash in big bowls on the porch. And even when we’d bought 12 bags of candy, it was never very expensive, and money wasn’t the point anyway. The point was the freedom.

At least that was my naive opinion until a friend of mine (subject line “this question made me want to nuke connecticut from orbit”) forwarded me this recent Slate.com’s Dear Prudence advice column entitled Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy? 

Read the column, unless you think you might barf. It’s exactly as bad as you think it is. The good news is that Prudence’s answer is spot on and includes the phrase:

Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks.

To tell you the truth, I’d never seen a whiff of class warfare in Halloween until this ridiculous question. But now, having thought about what Halloween represents, as an alternative – if very brief – economic system in which we all actually share (versus the so-called “sharing economy”), I can understand why someone who intensely examines and frets about their place in the hierarchy might find some way to distort it.

Instead of reveling in the inherent rule-breaking nature of Halloween, in other words, this person is threatened by it and wants to control it and make it conform to the class-based system they are familiar with. At least that’s my interpretation, because obviously it’s not really about how much Halloween candy costs.

Or maybe that person is just a witch (or a warlock).


Categories: economics
  1. October 24, 2014 at 9:25 am

    If the poor have no candy in their neighborhood then let them eat cake.

    That worked out well once before.


  2. jboggess
    October 24, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Huh. Of all the places I’ve lived* over the past 30 years, this has always been a thing. To the point that everyone knows which are the rich neighborhoods that will happily give you candy regardless of who you are, and which are the rich neighborhoods that will openly shun you (such as turning their lights off when they hear you’re in the neighborhood, and then turning them back on when you leave) and deserve to be egged or rolled or whatever. In some cases it carries a strong whiff of racism, but not always.

    I’m honestly surprised to hear that this is the first you’ve ever heard of such a thing. I just assumed it was like this everywhere. I’m glad to hear I’m wrong. It also makes me wonder how different trick or treating is in various places all across the country in other regards.

    * including but not limited to a rural town of about 30,000 people in the deep South, a suburb of OKC, a suburb of Memphis, and Bloomington, IN.


  3. October 24, 2014 at 9:59 am

    My friends used the phrase “liquor treat?” It worked!


  4. Dennis
    October 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Someone please explain Prudence the concept of trolling.


    • johnarkansawyer
      October 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Someone please explain Dennis the concept of concern trolling.


    • Zathras
      October 24, 2014 at 10:45 am

      I’ve heard enough wealthy people complaining about “those people trick-or-treating in my neighborhood” to think this is not trolling. This complaining is a Thing.


  5. Jay Croft
    October 24, 2014 at 11:46 am

    After my wife and I were empty-nesters, we moved to a group of condos which are not conducive to families with small kids. (beside a flowing river) I’ve missed the trick-or-treaters. I also miss the Girl Scout cookie solicitations, although that is taken care of by a trip to our local grocery where they solicit outside.


  6. kcab
    October 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    In my experience, usually the decision about where to trick-or-treat is based on “candy-per-mile”….you want to find a neighborhood with good house density, safe streets, and a welcoming attitude toward the holiday. That doesn’t mean the richest areas – house density is too low for optimum candy-gathering and there aren’t enough people for the street scene to be fun. Areas with lots of decorated houses tend to be good.

    I’ve lived in a couple towns that have known prime Halloween areas, where just about everyone from town (and around) congregates because it is really a big costume party. The best areas are definitely NOT the wealthiest, and the wealthier kids are among those visiting for trick-or-treat. It *can* be expensive to be one of the party-throwers, especially if there is peer pressure to go all out decorating and providing food/drink for adult friends. We live in one of those areas this year, but are looking forward to the fun. The streets around us will be shut down to car traffic and will be full of people. Some of the costumes are amazing, lots of adults dress up too – the whole thing is a bit over the top but a blast. My family has also driven to a prime area before, when the trick-or-treating was just lame around our house.

    I have thought of donating candy to friends that live in the best trick-or-treat areas before, since I know they’re going to spend a few hundred dollars on treats.


  7. Brad Davis
    October 24, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    When we lived in St. Paul, MN (I’m a Canadian living back in Canada) we were floored how many trick or treaters we got. Our first year we bought 3 big bags of candy and thought it would be overkill- boy where we wrong. My wife sent me back to target twice that night to get more candy. Our second year we thought we were better prepared and we had bought 10 bags of candy, and the kids still stripped the cupboards bare. In our last year, we bought 15 bags of candy, and we went through almost all of it.

    We didn’t have any kids at that time, so maybe that was part of it, but we didn’t care where the kids came from. It was obvious that the vast majority of kids coming to our door weren’t from our neighbourhood, if only because we could see them jumping out of cars at the end of our street. We were just happy to be able to help make so many kids night a good one.

    So there Prudence, instead of turning up your nose at these ‘invaders’, why not try to enjoy some of the cheer you’re bringing to these young souls?

    On an unrelated note: I really, really miss living in the US, and St. Paul in particular. I’ve grew up in Toronto, spent 2 years living in Nanaimo, BC, and almost a decade (across two stints) in Vancouver, and St. Paul will always feel the most like home to me.


    • October 25, 2014 at 5:55 am

      Brad, um Prudence wasn’t turning up her nose but rather the opposite.

      No trick or treat in Canada? I didn’t realize.


  8. M
    October 24, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    No, dear. You don’t have to give the little urchins candy. What you have to do is to load your car up with candy and go to poor neighborhoods about one hour before trick-or-treat starts and hand out candy to the children there. You will feel better about yourself, you will. 🙂


  9. October 25, 2014 at 5:52 am

    Wealthy neighborhoods sometimes have less appealing “treats” from a child point of view. Healthy is not desirable on Halloween. Sweet or chocolate is.


  10. October 25, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    People love to come from other neighborhoods to trick-or-treat in my area. What do I do? I give them candy and say Happy Halloween, just like I do for everyone else. It wouldn’t even occur to me to not give them candy. What do these people think?

    Also, nice sarcastic response from Prudence.


  11. EJD
    October 25, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    Ahhh the perpetual problem of the damned poors.
    Years one has to tolerate them before the children can be productive.
    And none of them sing anymore!
    One cannot even enjoy their little voices of an evening on the veranda sipping a julep.


  12. John Mc
    October 26, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Good commentary here, but my big problem with Halloween has to do with the fact that we have this one day of “community pretending” whereby we ply and saturate children with high-fructose corn syrup, packaged in the very plastic wrapper that is very likely to end up on the stockpile of stuff, toxins, and waste that is ruining the planet.

    And in the end, the consumer experiences a waste of resources, sugar riddled children, and the CEO of Mars company making millions on day that where we pretend to be superheroes. If there ever was a day for massive hypocrisy, it would be Halloween. The giving-taking dynamic is out of whack (as the author states).

    We really need to re-imagine rather than replicate its core culture which has been co-opted.



  13. October 26, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    It’s definitely about how welcoming the neighborhood is. I lived for years in a working class neighborhood with lots of spirit. They (“They”) plunked a condo development practically into the middle of it. A gated condo development. Well, Those People in the condo did do expensive decorations, some of which you could see through the gates, but they sure as hell weren’t about to open their doors just because someone knocked.

    In our neighborhood, on the other hand, there were flocks of kids racing around everywhere, almost every house had lights on, and the haul was damn good.

    So, of course, the condo people chaperoned their kids to come trick-or-treat among us. And, really, for that one day, everybody could talk and their kids were just as cute as everyone else’s. It’s a good spirit.

    As John Mc says, it’d be nice to have more of it, associated with less candy.


  14. Erik
    October 27, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Greetings from Somerville! It will be another great Halloween this year. My son’s first!! People of all economic strata are welcome (including Cambridge).


  15. TonyL
    November 10, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    I lived in the housing projects as a kid (Mar Vista Gardens; no Mar Vista and no Gardens) back in the mid sixties. We were guilty of going to the wealthier middle class neighborhoods to get treats after we had knocked on every door in the projects. They seemed to recognize us pretty easily. It was probably our lame costumes. Occasionally we were asked where we were from and sometimes denied treats by a few ogres here and there but like most of society back then, we weren’t vilified for being poor. Heck, the people in the projects could be a little tight but that is to be expected, but hardly anyone did not answer the door.
    Perhaps it is just my getting older but it sure seems to me that our society is just getting meaner, more selfish and paranoid as time goes by. If the ogres would just put out a “Get Off My Lawn” sign the little kids would just skip their house and perhaps leave it to the older kids to take care of business later in the night.
    As Mr. T would say, ” I pity the fools”. To stay so pissed at the world where you begrudge kids a few Kit-Kat bars because they are not as well off takes so much energy! If you can’t manage a smile for a kid in a costume you have to be pretty hard.
    BTW, just like kids with birthdays on Christmas, mine is on Halloween. Yeah, I got any leftover candy for my birthday. I still don’t like Candy Corn!


  1. October 26, 2014 at 6:55 am
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