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Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Cost of Being Poor (part 2)

This is the second of a two-part series on the high cost of being poor in the United States. See part 1 for a discussion of the cost of food, housing, and the use of money itself...

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. (for more: Healthcare Reform)

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.

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?

Click to enlarge GDP map
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)
Recommended Reading
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 dependant 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.


  1. I struggle with the "poor in America" concept. As you point out, most of our poor are still in the 1% to much of the world. My wife and I focus much of our giving largely on what I would call the "truly poor" -- those outside of the U.S. living in grinding poverty. Some of my cynicism comes from my experiences donating groceries to "poor" folks in a Midwest city several years ago. I remember walking into one home in particular where the family was watching cable TV. Sorry, but that's not poor. Having said that, we still give to agencies here in the U.S. that help abused children and our local Gospel Rescue Mission that does good work getting folks back on their feet and into the workforce. But...and here I go getting cynical again...a significant portion of the poor in America are poor only relative to the over-abundance surrounding them.

  2. hi Rod-
    Thanks for your perspective! It's true that even the USA's poorest are much better off that others around the world. It is so important to stay mindful of this fact and conform our hearts and actions likewise.

    But it's also true that many in the USA simply don't have consistent access food, medication, and/or shelter. Given that we are the richest county, one might think we'd not be at the top of the list for disparity. But indeed, if we haven't learned to share with folks down the street, as you point out we will be even worse at sharing with those around the globe.

    TVs, refrigerators etc are definitely more than much of the world has. But they also don't mean families aren't struggling and suffering. Appliances are obtained at a one-time cost at thrift stores, or even donated. But keeping up with monthly recurring expenses like food, utilities, rent, and medication can be quite a different story. In addition, slumlords often bundle 'luxuries' like cable in with other utilities, such that folks are required to pay for it anyway. This adds to the burden of paying monthly rent in way that further exploits their situation.

    Sometimes we want to see that people are miserable to determine their worthiness of our help. Would it make us more comfortable giving the groceries if the kids were playing with trash instead? What level of abjectivity is appropriate when we look to help our neighbors? We will always have choice about where to give out money, but determining that some folks aren't worthy enough might not be the best rubric.

    We cannot be the judge of who is 'deserving' and who is not. None of us are deserving of grace. We can simply help where we have opportunity. Sometimes it's easier to be compassionate with those in distant places than with neighbors in our own backyard. As we have an outward loving perspective, we must also remember to minister where we are.

    I'm really glad you're passionate about global poverty. We need so many different kinds of people with different passions to help restore justice to the many facets of this broken world. Thanks for your mission and your good work.

  3. Did you ask that family how they afforded cable TV? Or did you just judge them and decide that they're not "truly poor?" What are your other criteria? Indoor plumbing and non-threadbare clothes? Soap and eyeglasses? Are poor people allowed to use light bulbs after dark or will that cost them your charity?

  4. This was a great article. I want to comment on two things. One, I think this article is right on in terms of the downward cycle of poverty, and also the time it takes to be poor. I have seen people lose jobs because their bus was late, or they had to take their mother to the clinic and it took all day. These are realities.

    Another little known fact is that Medicaid, which most Americans assume kicks in for poor people, is generally only available if you have children or if you are disabled. I have a friend who has been extremely sick for years and has almost no income and she does not qualify for Medicaid because she has no dependents. Ditto on "food stamps".

    I also appreciate Rod's comments here because I get tired of the whitewash that fellow liberals sometimes paint. I know MANY poor people who did not get proper medical attention because of superstition or procrastination, rather than economics. I had a friend who died because he ignored multiple attempts by the clinic which tried to tell him he had cancer. I also see people make bad personal choices every day. So it is not either/or but BOTH. Education, personal choices, social structures -- all of these must be addressed to address poverty.

    I do want to point out that, for better or worse, TV is often the only entertainment poor families have. We've also found that it was really hard to get any channels at all without at least getting basic cable. That being said, people who are poor often also have had no positive financial habit-building, and sometimes make poor purchasing choices that can contribute to poverty.

  5. Important points, Eileen! Thanks for your perspective.

  6. Hi Rod, people can access cable in a number of ways besides paying for a full service personal account. I've lived in one apartment & one rental home where cable was a utility included in the rent. I've also known of people who use "splitter" devices which allow multiple households to access cable from the same account, and they split the bill 3-4 ways. Perhaps not the most ethical, but the point is they weren't paying the full rate. Some cable companies offer free trials for a 1-3 month period. I have a friend who was given cable service as a gift while she was on bedrest.

    Did you ask the family how they accessed their cable?

  7. Infrastructure is another ignored reality that costs the poor greatly and is a construct to keep them more or less out of sight.

    I learned this in Asia - as I found it easy to get anywhere quickly without a car. Infrastructure is developed for the whole, not around the individual rich person in a car. Bike to the bus stop, and buses come about every five minutes. They are linked up to the train stations, airports and ferry's. Want a more comfortable seat? Pay more and sit in the front or upper decks. As little as two dollars could buy a standing ticket to another city in Malaysia.

    Contrast that to how we view the poor's time - not worthy of investment. Useless.

  8. We don't value anyone's time - the car culture dominates and the poor are forced to dodge them. To walk longer distances. To avoid getting hit. Our infrastructure is actually incredibly racist by design. Tax money funds roads and repairs, but is cut from public transit. All supposedly because it doesn't turn a profit, but truthfully to make it too difficult for those people to make it out of their neighborhoods to remind us that they exist.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your insights here! Your perspective is so very appreciated.

  10. If more people knew what you told me in your various posts about being poor, laid out in the manner that you laid it out, there would be much fewer people who believed the poor=lazy mythology. In my experience, many people who believe this mythology are achievement oriented, individualistic, white males who are far away from the visceral consequences of poverty. Bravo Joy! You brought your readers into your world. That is what it will take to create a more just society.


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