In July 1960, James Baldwin wrote the following in an article in Esquire, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: a Letter from Harlem”: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
This week @girlziplocked asked a wonderful question on Twitter.
What's something about being poor that middle-class people absolutely don't understand?
— are presidents cops? ???? (@girlziplocked) January 24, 2019
It’s a great question, and the full Twitter thread is well worth the read. Below, I use some of the responses to the question to talk about 13 ways living in poverty is more expensive than being middle-class.
1. Poverty charges interest
Does this author ever get it.
poverty charges interest.
— MALDI-TOF cocktail???? (@erythromancy) January 24, 2019
A few of the ways the poor pay more in interest:
- Higher interest because of lower credit scores
- Loan-shark levels of interest if you have to use payday lending
- Acquired interest because you’re making minimum payments
- Overdraft fees
- Late fees
- Reconnection fees
2. Break/fix mode
“Keeping the lights on” is a phrase used in the corporate world to describe a group or organization that is so stressed or strapped that it can’t do anything else. This is the situation poor people often find themselves in.
Lack of choice. They just don't get that poverty is all consuming, staying afloat takes all of a persons energy. None left for self-improvement, planning etc
— Chris O'Donoghue (@chrishiking) January 26, 2019
How can you better yourself and your family if you have to spend all of your time on existing?
3. Inability to take advantage of bulk pricing or competition
When you have to buy small quantities because you can’t afford the larger ones, it ends up costing more.
The inability to purchase in bulk. 1) you don't have the money to pay upfront for something that will last a year and 2) you have nowhere to store it.
— brianneg78 (@brianneg78) January 24, 2019
In addition, as you make more money and your circumstances become better, you’re able to take better advantage of competition. If your transportation is better, you can drive to more places. The poor often do their shopping at neighborhood convenience stores that charge higher prices.
4. Fines and fees
Not being able to pay a fine on time often doubles the fine. If you can’t afford insurance or to register your car, you can be fined.
Hiding your car because you can’t afford to pay your registration, and really can’t afford a ticket for expired tags.
— on my world we say good journey (@chochacho) January 24, 2019
Court fees can also be significant and can compound. The people most likely to face arrest and go to jail are poor.
5. Transportation is more expensive
If you take public transportation, the biggest cost is often in time. In Cincinnati, for example, bus service is routed through downtown. If you need to get across town, you may have to connect through a route downtown that adds extra time to each trip you make.
"Driving is a privilege."
My dude, do YOU want to bring me to work?
— Gregory Palermo (@gregory_palermo) January 24, 2019
If you’re lucky enough to have a car, it may be at the point of needing constant repair. But it’s unlikely you can afford to get a loan for a newer one.
6. Housing is more expensive
Renting often costs more than a low-interest mortgage on a home. And renting for the short term tends to cost even more.
You want to rent an apartment, but you don't have first/last/deposit. So instead of paying, say, $500 a month, you pay $200 by the week — because you don't have any savings. Things cost more when you're poor.
— Inez Russell Gomez (@inezrussell) January 24, 2019
7. It affects your physical health
Food is often different where poor people tend to shop. The produce is bad and/or they don’t have all the same options. The poor don’t have as much time to cook so they often eat canned, boxed, or other prepackaged foods. All of this can lead to health issues.
This is spot on and you eat worse food which leads to health issues. Literally your cost per u it of whatever is higher than it would be if you had the means to "get up above it". It is SO expensive being poor that you are virtually certain to stay poor.
— BlissRage (@bliss_rage) January 25, 2019
8. And your mental health
The overhead, stress, and worry of having to deal with poverty can directly impact how you think. Researchers have found that poverty can reduce your IQ by 10 points.
How the chronic stress of poverty affects everything – your relationships, your ability to make decisions, your ability to focus, your ability to regulate your emotions. It also restricts your freedom because accidents that might not be a big deal for others would ruin your life.
— Amber Ruther ???? (@Amber_Dawn89) January 24, 2019
Sadly, this can result in people being more likely to make mistakes that contribute to extending their poverty.
9. Food insecurity
Not being able to afford enough food may be an issue as well. Feeding America estimates that one in eight Americans is food insecure. This equates to 40 million Americans, 12 million of whom are children.
Food insecurity – what it actually feels like running out of food and not having money that week for more.
— Adi MacArtney (@Science_Hooker) January 25, 2019
10. Losing out on job opportunities
When you’re first starting out, sometimes the only way you can get job experience is through unpaid internships. If you’re poor, this is not a route you can take. Other situations that affect opportunity in the workplace include not being able to move for a job, not being able to get experience for better jobs, not being able to pay for needed training or education, or not being able to interview.
Hell, you get offered a great opportunity but it might not work out, so you can’t take it because you actually NEED to get paid.
Or it’s across the country, and you can’t fly out for the interview.
Or it doesn’t start for 3 months, and you need a job TODAY.
— William Potter (@BillPotterNYC) January 24, 2019
11. You may have to take care of parents or other family members
If you’re poor, you can’t afford day care or elder care for family members. You may also have other relatives who are also poor and who need a place to stay and/or other help.
that you often have to take care of your parents or other family members because no one else is going to do it for you
— David Graeber (@davidgraeber) January 25, 2019
Several people mentioned that a question they sometimes hear is, “Why don’t you borrow from your parents?” This assumes that parents are available and willing and have money, a very middle-class assumption.
12. Social costs
People who make it into the middle class often do so because of networking. Many jobs often come through your contacts, whether it’s family, professional relationships, or friends.
This is what I hated about early adulthood. I realized I had the choice of spending at least $20/week on it or not having friends. I've come to terms with it and I've gotten more creative (and have more money), but I really wish social interaction wasn't automatically an expense.
— Dr. April C. Armstrong (@AprilCArmstrong) January 25, 2019
Poverty is often very isolating.
13. Higher taxes
This is a critical comment, given all we hear in the media about how the wealthy pay so much in taxes. As a percentage of income, the poor tend to pay more in state and local taxes, even if they don’t pay much income tax. This is because state and local taxes are typically regressive and cost those in the bottom fifth of income earners 11 percent of their income. In addition, they pay payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. All told, those in the bottom fifth pay an estimated 20 percent of their income in taxes.
You pay way more in taxes. I was born dirt poor, worked after college before med school, so 1st decade of adulthood middle class and now 1%-er. I pay about 2/3 as much tax as a percentage of income now than I did when I was middle class.
— Nick Gorton MD????️???????? (@RNickGorton) January 26, 2019
Middle and upper classes may pay less as a percentage of income because they tend to have more loopholes.
This list isn’t all-encompassing. I’m sure there are other ways it costs more to be poor. What I often encounter, though, are people who talk about how easy it is to overcome poverty. In my experience, these are mostly people who come from a middle- or upper-class background who, if they have ever been poor, have been so temporarily, while in school, for instance.
There is also a strong media narrative in our culture that all that’s needed is to simply work harder. The assumption is that if you just work harder, eventually you will break into the middle class. While that’s still possible, statistically it’s becoming less and less likely in America today.
Sharing personal stories like the ones in this Twitter thread brings these statistics to life.