Sunday, May 24, 2009

On Being Poor

Oooh, boy. This post is probably going to get me in trouble, but here goes.

The Washington Post has an article up on the high cost of poverty. I guess it's aimed at all those rich Washington Post readers who have never bought generic vegetables.

You have to be rich to be poor.

That's what some people who have never lived below the poverty line don't understand.

Put it another way: The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. This is a fact of life that reality television and magazines don't often explain.

The articles goes through a laundry list--including laundry--of what poor people pay more for than rich people. This includes groceries (from a convenience store), doing laundry, cashing checks and more.
"The poor pay more for a gallon of milk; they pay more on a capital basis for inferior housing," says Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "The poor and 100 million who are struggling for the middle class actually end up paying more for transportation, for housing, for health care, for mortgages. They get steered to subprime lending. . . . The poor pay more for things middle-class America takes for granted."

The poor also get assistance in lots of ways, large and small, to try to make their burdens lighter. And nowhere in this article does it discuss why so many things cost so much more if you are poor. To put it bluntly, the poor are much bigger risks for businesses and credit lenders because they are much more likely to not pay. There's also far more crime in poor neighborhoods, leaving businesses more vulnerable. And if a business doesn't make money, it doesn't stay in business very long.

The article contains a lot of interesting information for those who have never lived poor. I say "lived poor" because you can live in a poor way without actually being considered poor. And the problems, which are well-documented in the article, are manifold, from poor food choices to lack of banking resources to the use of time over money.

And not to be mean here, but the article didn't talk about the higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse in poor neighborhoods, or the inordinate number of smokers in poverty areas. Those habits cost lots of money, and taxing those habits is one of the least controversial ways of raising revenue, even though it hurts the poor disproportionately.

The best way to get out of poverty, of course, is never to be there in the first place, but that is an option plenty of people don't have. The second best way is to be smart and frugal. Don't buy your groceries at the convenience store. Take the bus to the food store. Don't buy soda pop or packaged foods; buy fresh or frozen and make your own (another time robber, btw). Save your pennies which add up to dollars. Don't use rental stores which rip people off. Save your money and buy the item outright. Find a way to use a bank close to home or work so you don't use check cashing places.

In many respects, you can't get ripped off by the system if you don't use it. Check cashing stores, money order places, rental offices--they exist because people will use them instead of thinking ahead, pinching pennies and denying luxuries until one can afford them.

Don't buy what you can't afford isn't a popular meme. The article doesn't really spend any time examining why people live in poverty, because to do so would be to criticize people for bad choices, and that would be mean. But the clues are all over the article. One woman lives with her boyfriend and child. She makes $15 an hour, well above the poverty level. Yet there's no discussion about why she isn't married (which tends to significantly raise the standard of living for all involved) or if her boyfriend works and contributes to the household.

Another man talks about using a check cashing place because he lost his driver's license and can't use a regular bank. Why not go get a new ID? Even the lost time and money for that would be cheaper in the long run than getting ripped off by the check cashing place.

A third man uses a check cashing place to mail his phone bill. He says it would be cheaper to mail it on time but "sometimes you don't have the money ahead of time." Did he call the phone company to explain? Will they work with him to pay the bill? The article never says, but I know from experience that many creditors (including big ones like the electric and water companies) will do just that.

A fourth guy gets pissed off at a grocery store because he only has 40 bucks for groceries and his cart totals $52. He puts back a bottle of soda, some paper towels and $9 worth of hot wings. Then curses out the clerk for the price of groceries. Yet, you can take a calculator (or pencil and paper) to the store with you to get only what you can afford. The items he put back weren't necessities like medicine. They were luxuries, however small the luxury may be.

This is not to excuse usurous rates for lending and borrowing. I'm not defending stores that gouge the poor or take advantage of the less fortunate. But not all poverty is beyond one's ability to prevent or handle.

Nowhere in the article are charities discussed. Most communities have churches and other nonprofit entities that help the poor with everything from food vouchers to fixing cars to rent subsidies and legal help. Recognizing and utilizing such agencies can help when one is in a bad way.

But complaining about a bottle of soda? Not so much.