Are You Poor? There’ll Be An Extra Charge for That

By Guest Columnist May 27, 2009

photo credit: Katherine Squier By Andrew Grant-Thomas For those who like their insights about the economics of life in poverty leavened with both data and poignancy, I heartily recommend DeNeen Brown’s “primer” in the May 18th Washington Post (“Poor? Pay Up”). The key point is this: It’s not just that poor people have less money to buy the stuff other people buy. It’s that poor people pay more for that stuff with the less that they have. The cost of poverty is measured in “money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace.” The piece is a quick read and I’ll recapitulate few of Brown’s excellent insights here. But I will grump about the way she muddies the waters about the role of geography, and says nothing about the play of race, in the dynamics of poverty. A reader could leave Brown’s piece thinking that “poverty is poverty is poverty.” It’s not. Yes, whatever your race and wherever you live, if you’re poor you’re less likely to own a car than if you’re not, or less able to afford to fix the car you have if it breaks down – which is likely, since you probably had to buy a cheap clunker to begin with. So you can’t get to places like Costco’s or Trader Joe’s where the real food savings are, and in any case don’t have $200 or $300 to buy the large-volume packets of meat, cleaning supplies, and other items to realize those savings. If you’re black or Latino, the alternative is often to buy your food at the local grocery store, where milk, bread, and eggs will cost much more than they do in supermarkets in working or middle-class neighborhoods, and where produce often isn’t fresh or available (but fast food joints and liquor stores may be abundant.) If you’re poor and white, you’re much more likely to live in a nonpoor neighborhood. Nationally, three in four poor African Americans and two in four poor Latinos live in neighborhoods with poverty rates that exceed 20%; only one in four poor whites does. Brown notes that the poor spend a lot of time waiting — waiting for the city bus to arrive, waiting for laundry at the Laundromat – because many don’t have cars or washing machines and dryers. This is an important point easily overlooked by those of us who rarely, if ever, suffer these inconveniences. However, among poor people with access to public transportation, Latinos and African Americans (34%) are twice as likely as whites (17%) to report using it “regularly for commuting to school or work.” And while fewer than six in ten poor Black and Latino families have washing machines at home, seven in ten poor whites do. Poor white people have it hard. Poor people of color and their communities typically have it even harder. Let’s push those responsible for distributing economic recovery dollars to keep that in mind in the months and years ahead. — For more about this recession’s impact on people of color, check out "Race and Recession: How Inequity Rigged the Economy and How to Change the Rules," a new report released by ARC. Andrew Grant-Thomas is the Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.