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Lifestyles of the Poor and Struggling

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 16, 2011

I’m known to enjoy a good Cracked.com list. Reasons why Glinda the Good Witch of the North is actually a villain was fun even after reading Wicked. Professions whose predictions are regularly worse than random chance—who can’t want to read that?

I even enjoyed most of their recent “5 Complaints About Modern Life (That Are Statistically BS).” Music and morals haven’t degraded since the 1950s; the streets haven’t gotten more dangerous. But then there was the complaint they led with: Everything has gotten more expensive.

No it hasn’t, they said. In fact, in constant dollars, all sorts of consumer goods, from refrigerators to tvs, have gotten mind bogglingly cheaper.

That’s kinda neat, sure. But I don’t know about you, but appliances and gadgets are not among my major household monthly expenses.
Housing is. “The last decade continues a striking 50-year erosion of housing affordability in the United States. In 1960, only 12 percent of renters spent half or more of their incomes on housing costs; by 1990 that number reached nearly 20 percent, and by 2008 it had exceeded 24 percent,” wrote Daniel Mccue of the Joint Center for Housing Studies in Shelterforce magazine last year. There is not a single county in the country where a full-time minimum wage worker could afford the fair market rent on a two bedroom apartment (where “afford” means spend not more that 30 percent of total income on housing).

Utilities costs are rising, transportation costs rise not only with gas prices, but with length of commutes. As employers are increasingly expecting employees to cover larger and larger percentages of their health insurance premiums, and copays rise and covered services drop, outlays for health care are rising as well. Tvs may be cheaper, but then there’s the cable bill.

The reason I feel the need to get picky about a jokey list like this is that it reminds me of the way that “97 percent of poor households in this country have a color TV!” Is still being thrown around by proponents of cutting social programs, as if possession of that one nonessential, and not very expensive, item were evidence of not really being poor. Quit yer complaining, life’s gotten more affordable!

As programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and housing vouchers are on the chopping block in the federal budget, we need a little reminder that in the first world at least, the biggest problem with being poor is not generally getting stuff. You get gifts, you use freecycle, you get donations, you go to auctions and thrift stores, you wait, or yes, sometimes, like the rest of us, you spend a tax refund you should have saved. Is it a hardship to have to go through all that, to have less choice, to do without particular things, to wonder how you will fulfill specific children’s holiday wishes? Of course. No question.

But what really defines someone who is economically struggling, what makes it really hard to make do without income for a few months, is the recurring costs, not the odd purchase of a much-cheaper-than-in-the-1950s consumer good. When it’s a struggle to afford to pay the rent, go grocery shopping, pick up your meds, pay the day care bill, buy a bus card, gas up the car, keep the lights and water on, or have minutes on your phone, the falling prices of stuff don’t help you much. It’s not like the money your landlord saved because refrigerators are now cheaper is going to make it into your pocket to help with daily expenses while you are unemployed.

Plus, writes professor Richard Wolff, “Over the last 30 years, the vast majority of U.S. workers have in fact gotten poorer when you sum up flat real wages, reduced benefits (pensions, medical insurance, etc.), reduced public services, and raised tax burdens.” Having less money for the same work is a lot like things getting more expensive.
When there are few living wage jobs to be had, or even enough jobs of any sort, only government is equipped to stave off the homelessness, child neglect, malnutrition, and the like that follows. Not doing so will hamper our economic recovery as we find ourselves short on ready workers and appealing places to do business because our families, school systems, and municipalities have been dragged down into crises it will take years and even more resources than we “saved” to recover from. Lawmakers at every level of government need to be told that loud and clear and repeatedly right about now.

Less income, higher monthly expenses, fewer jobs. Somehow a cheaper TV just doesn’t quite make up for it all.