It’s expensive to be poor

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.



13 thoughts on “It’s expensive to be poor

    1. Susan

      Eric-it looks like you’ve gotten a response from someone who hasn’t read anything more intellectually provocative than Highlights. I can tell by the interesting grammar used.

  1. Anonymous

    I think the answer is clear – you use your mad chemistry skills to cook blue meth and then make a huge pile.

    Oh, wait…


  2. Anonymous

    These things have really been weighing on my mind lately – how do we go about actually breaking this nasty cycle? I have in-laws (and I’ll remain anonymous for mentioning them) who are either at or slightly above the poverty line. Their life is not much different from what you described – and although they do have relatively decent insurance, their terrible health from many years of poor diet and taxing physical labor with low pay have brought on a series ailments large and small, none of which are cheap. Not to mention a lack of education severely hinders opportunities to improve their situation. At first glance, it’s already pretty bleak.

    But then there’s something else: we as a society have this unwritten expectation for the poor to be without vice – as if poverty IS their vice. And I’m not even talking seriously problematic ones like crippling addictions or violent behavior; I’m referring to things middle-class folk often shrug off with an “I’m only human” type attitude: impulse buying, poor time management, wastefulness. If you are using your food stamps for a package of Twinkies and some cigarettes, you are a deplorable human being who is taking advantage of people who actually do work hard, and you certainly haven’t earned the right to these most modest of luxuries. Yet if I – who thoroughly inherited my middle-class status and have no claim to being a hard-working individual – blow $50 on a shirt I wear once and then leave in the back of my closet, I’m may not be the most respected person, but I’m certainly no scourge of society. So yes, where do we start with all this? The best answer I’ve got is to keep talking about it, and to do our best to talk with understanding and mercy, instead of suspicion and condescension. But then what?

    1. admin Post author

      I love your thoughts here. Very interesting. And you’re right, the problems seems intractable. Maybe, as you suggest, charity in the Christian sense is the best answer.

  3. Anonymous

    There’s a bit of a stretch here with being charged for a crime when the drunk neighbor is the aggressor. If he’s in the hospital, they know his blood alcohol level and with your account and the wife’s account,t he cops will not arrest you. Plus over 72 hrs without a charge is inaccurate. 72 hours is the max and is in place to hold you over the weekend until courts open up on Monday. In many states, the max is 48. However, (and unfortunately) the Patriot Act can hold you longer without charge.

    1. Julie Saunders

      In overloaded areas, I’ve seen people held for well over a week simply because there were too many people to process and not enough resources to deal with them all. I’m not sure what the legality of that is, but it definitely happens.

  4. Pond

    Excellent points Eric. I recently read a book about this from a personal perspective called, ” See Poverty- be the Difference” by Donna Beegle PhD. Donna was born into the 5th generation of family poverty and broke the cycle of generational poverty in her family. An amazing book and incredible journey.

  5. anonymous

    Today I had a conversation with one of my fellow para-educators about our respective recent and soon-planned dentists’ visits. I am quite happy because I got to have a root canal yesterday. I’ve known I needed to have the root canal for over a year now, but only recently pulled together the financing for it. My friend will be having the remains of a tooth pulled tomorrow. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “It doesn’t hurt much any more.”

    I told her that I felt lucky that I could borrow the money for the root canal from my mother. She said that she had borrowed money from a friend last year to fix her car (which is always breaking down), and still hasn’t been able to pay her back, so there’s no way she would want to borrow more. I said that I felt lucky– again– that my mother is willing and able to share her car with me. I’m saving up for a car, but I’m at about $800, and have been going at it for about a year and a half.

    It took this conversation for me to realize, again, how expendable teeth are when you are poor. Also, I realized that even though I FEEL poor, I have resources that others do not, and that I’m actually quite fortunate.

  6. Anonymous

    I personally feel like it’s more expensive to be middle class than to be poor. Middle class individuals have issues exactly as you described only they do not have food stamps, unemployment checks, Medicaid, etc. I have a friend who recently told me that she encourages her husband to stay unemployed because they receive so much in food stamps, medical expense help, etc. She loads her cart with expensive, high-end groceries and there I am, clipping coupons and carefully budgeting everything. We had a next door neighbor who was a single mother – she told me that the reason she conceived her two children was so that she would get more money from the government. I agree with you that life is expensive and I’m sure it is difficult to be “poor” but I think people gloss over how expensive and difficult it is to be middle class.

  7. Rob Samuelsen

    I think the Earned Income Credit is just about the dumbest idea in the world to help the poor. When I was in graduate school, I got it and now my oldest daughter gets it. I’ve been a recipient so I know how it works. Here’s the problem with it. The poor can’t feed their kids daily breakfast and lunch so they get NSLP assistance. The poor can’t afford weekly groceries so they get food stamps. The poor can’t afford full rent so they get monthly section 8 housing allowance. The poor’s plight is daily, weekly, and monthly. The EIC is an annual benefit – at tax time. A once a year windfall is simply the politicians way of saying they are doing something about poverty. It does nothing to provide lunch, buy groceries or pay rent – the things that poor people really have to deal with.

    The only dumber idea is to extend it to single “poor” people. Singles have many more options and many of them live at home, live with friends/roommates, are students, or otherwise “temporarily poor.” As a graduate student, my wife and I had no money (actually I’m a really good saver so I always had a little money) but I never once considered myself poor. Yet, the government did by granting me a nice EIC check which allowed my wife and I to go on a long vacation. To me it was a gonga deal to not only not pay taxes but to have the government give me money (like paying negative taxes) and to have an incredible vacation with my new bride.


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