To some, drinking one makes you a snob. To others, it makes you a spendthrift. But neither of these perceptions may be particularly accurate — and in fact, the latte can tell us a lot about how America thinks about food, work and money.

Perhaps the latte's most popular association, at least currently, is with a certain level of affluence. Conservatives complain about "latte liberals" who are out of touch with the working class — in January, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, derided Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to fund universal pre-K with tax hikes for the wealthy as "small soy latte liberalism." A recent Atlantic story referenced "latte-sipping techies" in San Francisco. And last week, Erik Holm of The Wall Street Journal tweeted a note someone had left on a company coffee machine: "Latte not working. This is a recurring* problem, FYI." The note after the asterisk: "first world." (Mr. Holm says that the problem has now been fixed.)

But the notion that lattes are a sign of privilege may be off-base. Kyla Wazana Tompkins, a professor of English and gender and women's studies who's a former food journalist and the author of "Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century," told Op-Talk that "the latte, while it may be attached on a certain level to too much upper-class food knowledge and pretension, it really is no longer an upper-class drink." She explained: "No matter how many kale salads Starbucks puts in their case, Starbucks is a fast-food purveyor." The latte, she argued, "is a high-calorie food that's being pushed in an industrialized way largely to working-class people." And, she added, "it's important to think about the explosion of all of these industrialized lattes, all these frozen lattes, all the Frappuccinos, as links to a larger problem of creating cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition food for working-class people."

Making latte seem upper class, though, may be to its purveyors' advantage: "The more that the latte can be attached to expressing a kind of elite class or race or gendered identity, the more profitable it is, no matter how many billions of them get sold by Tim Hortons or at your local gas station."

The latte may also stand for a particular attitude toward work and pleasure. Ms. Tompkins noted that "coffee is very much associated with heightened productivity," an association it had in the 18th and 19th centuries as well: "Coffee has always been tied, as a stimulant, to the Protestant work ethic." And Johannah King-Slutzky, who put the pumpkin spice latte in historical context at The Awl last year, told Op-Talk that lattes signify a kind of "combination of industry and relaxation": As with many desserts and coffee drinks, she explained, "in order to be marketed effectively, they need to indicate that you're working hard and that you deserve a break, and that 'you deserve a break' hinges on busy-ness."

This combination may also make them perfect for social media. People Instagram their lattes in part to show off pretty latte art, said Ms. King-Slutzky, but lattes are also an ideal subject for the kind of sharing social networks promote. "You're encouraged to be doing something before you talk about it or take a picture of it," she explained, but "communicating that thing requires a lapse in whatever you're doing, so social media automatically includes that 'I'm taking a break from being busy' ethos."

Not everyone sees the latte break as well deserved. In the world of personal finance, lattes have become a symbol of superfluous indulgence, the thing you're supposed to cut out if you want to save money. In her book "Pound Foolish," Helaine Olen credits the personal-finance author David Bach with popularizing this idea, most notably in an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. But, she writes, it started earlier — the earliest print reference she could find was a 1994 Money magazine piece advising readers to "wake up and smell the $3 caffe latte."

Ms. Olen told Op-Talk the latte might have become a personal-finance meme because "it's a luxury we both all indulge in and we see all the time" — spending money on a coffee drink is a lot more public and visible than spending on, say, medical care. And, she said, "we do have this thing in this country that other people's luxuries and little things they do every day are unnecessary, while our own are not so unnecessary."

But the emphasis on lattes, Ms. Olen said, has distracted us from the real financial problems most Americans face: The skyrocketing costs of housing, education and health care. These problems don't lend themselves to simple solutions: "It's not that easy to tell people how to cut back on going to the doctor."

And cutting out lattes may be easier for some than for others. Being able to buy the drink, Ms. Olen argued, has become "almost a sign of belonging" in the American middle class. "I do think there is a cruelty to it when you tell people that they shouldn't have it," she said. "It's really easy for somebody who's very wealthy to give up a sign in our culture that you can be in the middle class, because it's always easy to give something up if you know you can have it five minutes from now. But telling somebody to truly do without is something else."

For Ms. Tompkins, the way we talk about lattes — as signifier of wealth when they're not, as bank-breaking indulgence when they may not be — is a symptom of something larger: "The latte as a symbol has sort of disengaged itself from the actual use and the consumption of the latte as commodity," she said. "How does the symbolism of a thing get dislodged from the ways in which it's actually used and actually consumed? What is that except another way in which we're stopped from really looking at what problems actually exist?"

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