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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

artificial life in the market, articficial life in the marketplace

Recently the Washington Post ran an article called The High Cost of Poverty. The author describes it as a "primer on the economics of poverty," and I recommend it as such.

The gist of the piece, if you haven't already clicked over and read it yourself, is that the more poor you are the more expensive day to day life is. It's not new news, but it's something those of us above the poverty line might not think about day to day.

Convenience costs money, and many of us (in the middle class) gladly pay small fees for an easier life. We drive to the grocery store rather than walk or take the T, because it's quicker. A person who does that has decided that the time and hassle saved by driving is worth the price of the gas.

Sometimes the choice isn't about convenience but rather about options. Perhaps there's a 7-Eleven on the corner, but driving to Trader Joe's is worth the gas money to you because you'll save overall on the price of individual items like milk. Plus the fruit will be fresher, and you have your choice of better meats.

But what if you didn't have a car? Or what if you couldn't afford that gas AND groceries AND the electric bill this month?

Every day, many people often have to make those choices. And more often than not they end up having to choose not only a less convenient option, but also a more expensive one.

And the expense comes not only in the form of money but in time, energy, quality of life and health.

An example used in the article is that people in higher income brackets often have direct deposit as an option whereas poorer people do not. They have to receive or pick up their check and then bring it to a cash checking location or a payday loan place. Just the other night I was waiting for a bus on Mass Ave near BMC at 11:30pm and an older woman was waiting with me. She worried aloud that the check cashing place might close before her bus came. Finally, she decided to take a cab.

The effort costs time (which could be allocated to other activities), energy (walking or taking public transportation), and money in transportation and check cashing fees.

The article also touches on quality of life costs, pointing out that most "affordable housing" options are in neighborhoods where day to day living can be hazardous. (Think the lyrics to "Skid Row" from Little Shop of Horrors. "Downtown, where the cabs don't stop/Downtown, where the food is slop, Downtown where the hopheads flop in the snow/").

However, a signficant cost of poverty, barely touched on in the article is health.
Nutritious food is expensive and hard to find. Unhealthy food is cheap and at almost every intersection in the form of a Dunkin Donuts or MacDonalds. Try telling a homeless patient with hypertension to cut salt out of their diet. Try telling a single mother working two jobs with two kids living at grandma's that she needs to spend money on fluoride rinse, or buy chicken that doesn't have any growth hormones added to it. Try that with food stamps.

Not to mention that when health problems do arise, not many people below the poverty line have "sick time," and most of them are working in occupations which are hazardous to begin with. I've seen countless patients of mine rush back to work with not quite healed limbs, wounds or infections because "I can't afford to be away from work this long." Or "if I don't go back today, my boss said I might not get my job back."

Every day I come in contact with many people who either can not or will not hold themselves accountable for their circumstances. Excuses abound for these individuals, and their problems are never their fault. (To be fair, some of these people are my homeless patients and some of these people are comfortably housed people I meet in other areas of my life. Laziness and immaturity span financial divisions, as do drugs abuse, ill advised lifestyle choices and apathy.)

I say this because I want to acknowledge that those people do exist.
But I want to stress here that not everyone who is poor was born that way, and not everyone poor got that way through their own choices.

The fact of the matter is that being poor costs a lot more than most people give any thought to. It takes a lot of strength, determination and will power to make ends meet when you live paycheck to paycheck. And our country is full of those people. And I'm not just talking about homeless people anymore. I'm talking about the lower class. They have homes, they have jobs, they aren't (necessarily) on drugs, but they're struggling. Because of unemployment maybe, or a physical handicap, or for whatever reason, but they struggle every day.

And I'm not sure how to make it better.


Adam Pieniazek said...

Your article title hooked me in. Oh how I wish Op Ivy didn't break up.

You're smack right on point with this article too, Misch. Born and raised in Dorchester, I saw examples of this high cost of poverty everywhere. As you said, convenience stores charged more than Trader Joe's, the quality of goods at many shops was shoddy, and tons of workers would put their health aside and work through injuries.

Dorchester has improved in many ways. Just recently, a fresh fruit store opened up the street from my house. It helps, but artificial foods are so heavily ingrained in poor neighborhoods (for financial and psychological reasons) that it won't be an easy to keep improving.

Still, there's hope for reducing the cost of poverty. Bicycles are a great example of a cheap tool that works to improve health, reduce transportation costs, and increase independence. Green technology and urban farming could also pave the way for relatively easier lives for the poor.

In the end, we all have to work to improve all neighborhoods. Then, our whole society improves along with them.

MischMash said...

Thanks, Adam.
You're right. And the phrase "heavily ingrained," is one I take seriously because culture is so hard to change.
Our working class poor and our homeless poor are not all going to just start using bikes and eating fresh fruits on their own until bikes and fresh fruits actually feel more convenient than the choices they are making, whether it's by price or by the time they save.
Hell, most middle class people aren't going to start using bikes (if they don't already) just because the rest of society tells them it's better for the globe and their health. People want what people think they want, and it's up to the minority to "witness," change to the masses.

MischMash said...

PS Thanks for getting the OP IVY reference too. I had no idea you were a fan.

Adam Pieniazek said...

I've always thought city bike rentals were a bit silly, but reading your comment makes me realize they'd be a good stepping stone to bike ownership. Once people actually hop on a bike or bite into some fresh fruit, they're usually sold. The difficulty lies in making them take that first step and leaving aside their pre-conceived notions.

Speaking of which, it's funny how many people are surprised by me loving Op Ivy. Tung Pham turned me onto them in the 8th/9th grade and was a fan near immediately. That "jock" persona I tended to give off didn't really quite describe me behind the scenes.

Was much more of a geek and non-mainstream music lover than it seemed!

Anonymous said...

Misch, I'm curious on what you'll say on this (I get huge amounts of opposition from my family with this one)....

Anyone receiving any form of government assistance should be drug tested. If you can afford a bag of weed than you can afford food etc etc