The Cost of Being Poor

Cost To Be Poor
It’s expensive to be poor.

“The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace” says the Washington Post. Most of us wouldn’t be able to afford it.

In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference in those terms)  Minimum wage is rarely enough to cover housing costs. One can work full time and still not earn an income that is above the poverty line. Families are forced to make tough choices to stay afloat, living paycheck to paycheck with no opportunity to save. All this in a world where everything is more expensive when you’re poor.

The cost of food is higher. Don’t even try to buy healthy foods (if fresh fruits and veggies are available at all). Without a car, or money for gas to drive to the suburbs, grocery shopping must be done at small convenience stores that often charge significantly more for basic groceries:

A local convenience store recently sold Campbell’s Chunky chicken noodle soup for $3.69; Hellmann’s mayonnaise for $4.39; and Jif peanut butter for $3.79. Two-and-a-half miles away, a supermarket sold the same brand of soup for $1.99; mayonnaise for $3.29; and peanut butter for $3.29. If Jif was too expensive, Peter Pan was $2.69. The difference: As much as $3.90 for three items. Fill up a shopping cart and you will quickly see how the poor pay more for food.”

Maybe you do have a car to drive to cheaper locations, but if you’re below a certain income level, you’ll pay more for insurance: “In New York, Baltimore and Hartford, they pay an average $400 more a year to insure the exact same car and driver risk than wealthier drivers.” Indeed, “Among the working poor, 13% of income is spent on commuting if public transportation is used, 21% if a private vehicle is used. Workers who earn $45,000 or more spend 2% of their income on commuting.

Housing is another issue. In the midwest, the mortgage on a four-bedroom house is ~$600/month (and interest is tax deductible). But without good credit, or money for a downpayment you end up spending over $1000/month to rent a fraction of that space (with no tax deduction). And even renting requires at least the first month’s payment up front, along with a security deposit. Without that kind of cash, your choices are to pay per night at a motel (~1500/month), or live on the street.

Even using money itself is expensive. Checking accounts often charge monthly fees unless one maintains a minimum balance or direct deposit. Without a checking account, it can cost significant fees to cash a paycheck. Without checks, one is also often charged a fee to pay utility bills. And sometimes the money’s just not there to pay for food and for the electricity, so you put off the electricity bill, even though you know you’ll incur a late fee. And saving money for the future? Worry instead about surviving today.

So without access to banking services, many must turn to predatory payday lenders. You can borrow $300 for a $47 fee. That’s only if you pay it back within a week (806% APR). But now at least your rent is covered. Credit card interest rates also vary by income. Making standard minimum payments, it will take 13 years to pay off a $4000 credit card balance carrying the typical 11.5% APR. Bear in mind that the majority of uninsured folks carry over $2000 in medical debt alone.

Health care is a huge contributor to wealth disparity. Low income folks are more at risk for health problems, both physical and mental. This vulnerability can also severely decrease capacity to hold a job. Depression, anxiety, exasperation, and learned helplessness can grow unmanageable, all of which further affect employability.

There is no fallback in times of emergency. No wiggle room for illness. The middle class pays for a broken leg by dipping into savings, and it can be a blow. But if you’re poor and the paycheck runs out, that’s it. Treatable conditions are ignored, and more serious ones fester. Heaven forbid your child is born with a disability, or you have a parent with a chronic illness.

As a country, the health care for the nation’s uninsured costs ~$125 billion every year, but with benefit cuts hitting the lower class the hardest, employee health care is difficult to come by. Approximately one in five women go uninsured. In some states, a family of three must make less than $5000 per year to be considered eligible for public health insurance.

Those that qualified for medical assistance while they were unemployed lose that aid once they are hired for even part time employment (with or without benefits). This forces folks to choose between earning an income and maintaining their prescribed medication. Medical fees are charged at a higher rate to uninsured individuals than those negotiated by insurance companies. Without a family doctor, ER expenses rack up. And then the debt collectors start to prowl.

It also costs time to be poor.  A LOT of time. Two hours at the laundromat. Twenty minutes waiting for the bus. Then, the time on the bus: “‘I ride the bus to get to work, ‘Nicholas says. It takes an hour. ‘If I could drive, it would take me 10 minutes.'”

Poverty costs 40 minutes to pay a basic utility bill because of money order lines. It costs four hours in the ER for strep throat instead of seeing a family doctor. And if you try to navigate the bureaucracy of social services systems, you’re certain to invest some serious time there.

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Lines for food, lines for paperwork, lines for health care, lines for shelters. No sense in rushing. You will always just end up waiting. If time is money, then without money, you’re double broke.

So what’s the solution for those living in poverty?  Don’t ever have a family? Don’t ever get sick? Don’t ever make a mistake? Never have any rest or enjoyment? Be sufficiently miserable in penance for your lot?

In the latest census, 46.2 million people live in poverty in the USA (15% of the population), representing an 18% increase since 2008. The challenges discussed here plunge families into a cycle of poverty. This legacy is passed on to subsequent generations that miss out on the accumulation of generational advantage.

Many of us have worked hard to get where we we are. But rather than working hard to get ahead, some folks’ hard work goes to simply surviving. Both groups toil, but we start from different places. The fruits of our labor are not all the same. It is exhausting work to be poor.

Bear in mind, this discussion has focused, on what it means to be poor in the United States, where even our poorest are the 1% to much of the world.

Consider the multitude of verses in the bible about our responsibility to the poor. Do we not believe the parts that say:

  • “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (Proverbs 29:7)
  • “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)
  • “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29)

Consider also that even as multi-racial churches become more trendy,  multi-class churches are much more rare, and more difficult to pull off in true solidarity and unity.

Take time to play this interactive game to see what choices you would make given some stark realities. Read some of this excellent ‘Being Poor Is‘ list. Join others in taking the Food Stamp Challenge.

Begin to form friendships in which you are mutually dependent with someone of a lowering income level than you.  Don’t just serve at a soup kitchen, sit at the table as well. Don’t just pray for the poor, ask them to pray for your salvation as well.

I’m pretty sure my privilege is obscuring some of the costs of being poor, so feel free to add more examples in the comments section.


Katelin Hansen (@strngefruit) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and understanding across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective.

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  • Always alone

    I would be hard pressed to find someone with a lower income than myself. You forgot to mention those of use who have student loans to pay off as well. The Bible says God has a plan, but when you can’t get interviews for jobs even, it makes one wonder what that plan is. I am almost 40, no spouse and not able to date because I make about $13K a year. In the last decade, I have averaged about $8K. I have returned to school a few times, accumulated more debt, because I was told that would make me more marketable. It has not. Last year, I was so sick with a cough that I coughed up blood for 3 days. I am unable to get medical help to find out what is wrong with me because I cannot afford it. All I have hoped for almost daily for the past few years is to not wake up. Church people don’t want to have anything to do with me because I “am depressing”. I have no support, no one wants to listen to me and help me bear this burden. I don’t want money from people, but to have a support group to talk to would be nice. I don’t fit the socioeconomic criteria for church people though. I know despair intimately and am constantly depressed. I have certain health problems that I would like to be able to go to a doctor to get checked out, but since that costs money I don’t. I am presuming I will die of cancer or something similar within the next few years.
    God says He has a plan, but for those of us who are unable to take care of basic needs, it certainly doesn’t seem like it most of the time. I know my problems are better than many but that doesn’t make it any easier. If I were to die today, no one would likely know for weeks. Being poor and alone is depressing.

    • dee

      Anyone that is self-motivated, committed and teachable can build themselves a great future. Will it happen overnight? No. But it can happen. auntfaydesigns at yahoo

      • matt

        James 2:16

        i’m not sure a few of you actually read the entire article. Your response seem to indicate that….

      • http://www.facebook.com/dave.gray.967 Dave Gray

        Rebuilding your self takes time and resources. The poor are too busy just trying to survive to have the time and resources to lift them selves out of there poverty.

      • Jennifer A. Nolan

        Go back 60 years and try being black in one of our segregated states.

    • Jesse

      I’m sorry that you have been treated so poorly. I also suffer from depression, and I know what it is like to want not to wake up. I pray that you find friends, love, support, and a job soon. If you would like someone to talk to, you can e-mail me. jesse [at] gatech {.edu}

    • Jennifer A. Nolan

      I’m not sure of God having a “plan,” but I am pretty sure of what most poor people lack in life: a mission. Self-care doesn’t cut it; you can ask for all the help you want, but what have you got for the community, or the biosphere, in return? Some talented artists dig their way out by entertaining or enchanting large-enough audiences: look at Snoop Lion (once Snoop Dogg) or greeting-card artist Mary Engelbreit. A few can really turn an image or a phrase and so become great marketers. The young artisanal moms and pops are making a mark, and a real living, at bakeries, organic farms, and handicrafts that didn’t even exist until the artisans cooked them up. “Education” is frequently just an expensive distraction. Either we find a real place in the community or the economy, or we struggle in vain. Nothing new here. The least you can do is use your Internet connection to get in touch with the Red Cross or Health Care for All, if you’re really serious about looking for medical help.

      That said, one mission some of us could fulfill is to puncture the balloons of all those stingy profit-mongers and financial pirates.

  • joe

    Well, learn while you are in school! Get a good job and learn to be an adult.

    • Bell

      I got good grades in school, but I never got a scholarship. My parents could not afford to send me to college. Things were alright though, because I got married and had a family…my husband was in the military for over a decade, until he got hurt and they had no more use for him. He is skilled, but when he was in the service they had him working all the time, with no opportunity to get a degree. He knows how to do his line of work, but he doesn’t have that piece of paper to prove it, so nobody will hire him. We are both working on our degrees now, but in the meantime we are living poor. One of the hardest things about it is the judgement from the people who don’t know us. Strangers were so quick to thank him and treat him with respect when he had on that uniform…it makes them feel patriotic to support the troops. Now he is looked down on. People assume things about him that aren’t true. Stuff happens….it isn’t always as easy as just getting a job.

    • http://snommelp.tumblr.com/ Snommelp

      Your response seems to be entirely counter to the Bible verses presented in the article, as well as every other Bible verse regarding the poor and how God’s people should respond to them.

    • Loriw123

      Joe, what about people who are sick, or have mental health problems. What are they supposed to do. How can people learn to be adults if they have no role models to teach them. Didn’t you read the article? Why are you even commenting on this site?

  • Digger

    I’m happy that the author suggests personal relationships with people rather than asking the government–the single least efficient spender of money–to fix the problem. I’m pretty sure the government is a large part of the problem anyhow.
    I love the idea of eating and praying with people. Let’s live with people instead of throw other people’s money at them.
    Nice article, Ms. Hansen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/piet.vanoostrum Piet van Oostrum

    It’s disgusting what a condemning attitude some replies show. Please become a follower of Jesus. Let me repeat one of the scriptures from the article:

    “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”

    • http://bytheirstrangefruit.com StrngeFruit

      Thanks, Piet! I had a similar reaction to yours!

  • Jesse

    What a terrific article. Thank you for writing it.

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