Some recent experiences have caused me to reflect on this sad paradox; it’s expensive to be poor. It’s not just difficult, frustrating, a grinding slog. It’s really expensive. It costs a ton of money to be a poor person in America.
It’s two in the morning, and your kid has a fever. She’s miserable, and can’t sleep, barely has the energy to cry. Until very very recently, you had two alternatives, both of them entirely irresponsible. One is, you hope for the best, use wet washcloths on her forehead, hope the fever goes down. Pray it’s not meningitis, something really serious. Or second, you take her to the hospital, rack up a bill you have no way of paying. Both choices are wrong; both could leave you with serious negative consequences. Obamacare helps, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in a red state, a state that has refused the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Then you may still find yourself in the bad ol’ days when an emergency room was your only alternative. But if you’re lucky enough to live in a blue state, you can get Medicaid. Or buy insurance on the exchanges. There are some alternatives.
If you’re poor, you can’t afford a nice car. You probably drive a clunker. Probably it gets bad gas mileage (an expense). Probably it breaks down more often (repeated body blows of expenses). If a cop sees you, you might get pulled over and given a fix-it ticket. Fix the car (an expense), and take time off work (an expense) to go to the police station to show that you’ve fixed it, or pay the ticket, pay a fine. And you have to have a car to get to work, because most places in the US, public transportation is minimal.
If you’re poor, you don’t eat as well. For one thing, you’re probably working more than one job, so going home to cook a nice meal is one more exhausting task at the end of an exhausting day. Fast food’s easier, but not as good for you, and frankly, kind of expensive.
You probably have crappy housing, if you’re poor. Right now, it’s really cold out–if you’re poor, you’re more likely to need to keep water flowing (an expense) through the pipes at night so they don’t freeze up and crack (big expense). Your house probably doesn’t have good insulation, so your heating bills go up. Appliances break; more expenses.
And you likely live in a crappy neighborhood. And maybe your neighbor’s a drunk. Maybe he’s a criminal, an ex-con. So maybe your wife (or girlfriend) comes home, and your drunken ex-con neighbor starts hassling her. You intervene, and he threatens you and her, then starts throwing punches. You fight back, and maybe he’s injured. The emergency room reports it to the cops, and you find yourself criminally charged. Oh my gosh, the costs start mounting.
An attorney’s fees. Bail. If you’re in jail, you can’t work; no income. Phone calls from the jail are collect only, at like 25 bucks a minute. Especially if you’re black or Hispanic, the presumption of innocence goes right out the window. You’re assumed to be the aggressor. You’ll find the criminal justice system entirely against you, every step.
Specifically: the cops can arrest you without charging you with anything, and hold you for 72 hours without charging you. That’s 72 business hours–Saturdays and Sundays don’t count towards it. So that’s up to 5 days work you miss, and you probably lose your job. Then, instead of filing charges, the DA can just ‘open a file’ and hold you for another 72, three more lost days of work. Bail is usually a thousand dollars, if you can get it bonded; who has that kind of money lying around?
Okay, so, where do you get the money? Car breaks down, or water heater, something essential, and you suddenly need to come up with a thousand bucks–where can you get it? Or bail, or attorney’s fees. What do you do? Payday loans, title loans? It’s possible to borrow quite a bit of money with no credit or with lousy credit, if you don’t mind paying usurious interest rates. Say 500% APR? So you get sucked into that whole money grubbing racket. And yet . . . those places, scummy though they are, are the last resort for poor people who need a lot of money fast.
Government agencies can help, and do. The Earned Income Credit is one incredibly helpful program intended to help poor families, which really does. Food stamps; incredibly helpful. Unemployment insurance; a badly needed pittance.
I’m only scratching the surface, I think. But being poor in America doesn’t just mean not having money or resources. It’s expensive. The mythology is that America is a land of opportunity, a nation where poor people can bootstrap it up to success and prosperity. Mostly nowadays, though, what we have are barriers. You get slammed down, every time you struggle your way even a little bit up. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We could make it easier, less expensive, more hopeful, to be poor.