Home > Philosophical Underpinnings > Being Poor is Hard Work

Being Poor is Hard Work

The Money Problem

Contrary to the popular opinion that “poor people are lazy”, the truth is that every aspect of life becomes much harder when you are poor. And the learning curve if you suddenly become poor is staggering. It is hard enough for those who understand the system. For the newly poor, life is fraught with peril. There are so many things where the solution was once money, and now it is waiting in line, or filling out forms,  or figuring out how to do it yourself. Sometimes the solution is to just do without. For the poor, a great deal of time is spent just fulfilling basic needs that could be obtained easily with money, or dealing with the effects of needs that can’t be met at all, such as, in many cases, medical care.

For the moneyed, getting food is as easy as deciding what to get and getting it. Cooking is an option, and ingredients are no problem. The very people who have the greatest access to medicine also have the pick of healthy food choices. For the poor, at a certain point, getting food requires standing in long lines for assistance, which is often inadequate. With or without food stamps there may be few healthy food choices in the neighborhood. To get healthy food if you are not lucky enough to have a garden plot or live near a community garden, it may be necessary to go a long distance, possibly without a vehicle, and then get the provisions home. This takes a lot of effort, and that is before the stove gets fired up.

Then there is the question of transportation. Car ownership, even an old beater, is expensive and wrought with peril. If you are not a mechanic and have no mechanics in your immediate circle, there is always a chance that things can go wrong. Buying car insurance can cut into money for food or heating, and fuel prices are spiraling upwards. It may be impossible to get the car registered in a timely fashion, which drives up the cost in the end. In that case it is necessary to take evasive action every time you spot a cop on the road. And when you finally get caught the fees can exceed the value of the vehicle, or make it so you can eat nothing but peanut butter for awhile.

Without a car, in many areas, getting anywhere takes a lot of time, and some money unless you walk. This can be mitigated by living in a place with good public transportation, especially if there is a program for a low-cost monthly pass.

Money management presents a problem. At a certain point, having any kind of bank account becomes a liability. The few bills that must be paid by mail not involve a trip to the store for a money order, one of the most insecure and difficult ways of paying. God help you if it gets lost in the mail…

If you get sick or injured enough to absolutely require medical attention there is always the emergency room. You will be hounded for an outrageous amount of money for years afterwards, and may get substandard treatment, but will likely survive. For lesser ills, you can try to get an over the counter remedy or just tough it out. And if is a dental problem, just forget it. Teeth are not considered part of a poor person’s body.

These are just a few examples of situations where poverty creates the need for massive amounts of work just to survive. It is not laziness that keeps the poor impoverished, but rather a system that is completely stacked in favor of maintaining the status quo. There is the ever present chance of stepping on some rich person’s “property rights” and there by incurring some mountainous expense at law. For instance, if you park on private property and get towed, the initial fee may be hundreds of dollars and increase by fifty or more dollars (a week’s groceries) each day. The towing yards are full of cars that could not be retrieved by their owners. These vehicles may have been keeping their former owners employed. And the private towing company gets to KEEP this unconscionable profit.

There are whole industries that prey on the poor, raising the prices that they are likely to pay for everything from milk to tires. The worst are the predatory lenders offering quick cash at fees that are beyond usury.

And, if there are any infractions of government codes, such as rolling a stop sign, a choice must be made whether to lose the vehicle, risk jail, or just stop eating for a month. A moneyed person would just pay the bill and drive on.

In many places there are laws about sitting or standing on the street without obviously being in the process of buying something. Even going to the bathroom when not at home costs money, to become a “customer” and therefore eligible to use the facilities. The list just goes on and on. It is safer, when poor, to never leave your house. But then you will just get evicted and join the ranks of the homeless.

Yes, being poor is very hard work and it will likely get much harder as the ranks of the former middle class start to press in on available services while the government struggles to keep up. At the same time the tax revenues that used to be paid into the system by the former middle class are drying up as millions of people either remain unemployed or replace (at long last) high paying jobs with minimum wage jobs. The mean streets are about to get a lot meaner.


  1. Greg Walter
    January 5, 2011 at 7:53 AM

    Really excellent post, Annabel. It’s truly sobering to realize how close many people in our world are to being in exactly the situation you describe above, and yet society’s knee-jerk reaction is to shake its head and call these people losers. Keep up the insightful work — I’ll definitely keep reading…

    • Annabel Ascher
      January 5, 2011 at 8:52 AM

      I guess there are more “losers” all the time, even if they were successful until they got down-sized, and even if they did everything “right”.

  2. David
    January 5, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    I would only make one small correction to this entire article. When you are poor, peanut butter is too expensive. I lived for three weeks in January2010 on a diet of nothing but rice and water. The fourth week I had a treat, because I shot a squirrel in my back yard, so had meat with the rice.

    • Annabel Ascher
      January 5, 2011 at 8:54 AM

      Point taken. I also forgot to mention that there might be children suffering malnutrition as well due to some small infraction on the parent’s part. Something that a moneyed person would merely buy their way out of and not even feel the consequences.

  3. Sherry H.
    January 7, 2011 at 8:17 AM

    Annabel, this is a very true and accurate post. It is amazing how the Middle Class is quickly sliding over the edge. People with small businesses cannot get the cash flow to keep going. People with homes are called dead beats when they cannot make their payments due to abuse by the mortgage companies and securitization of their loans. Sadly the list goes on and on. As the Middle-class become the new poor who will be creating the jobs and paying the taxes to keep American citizens from starving in the streets? There is no room for error and part of the problem is the people haven’t made the errors, they are just living the consequences of errors that have been placed upon them for being a part of this corporate giant society. There is very little heart left in a society that does no know it’s neighbors nor cares about anything but the quarterly earnings.

  4. CGabel
    May 2, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Wow, you just perfectly described my life while I was raising my children. I didn’t get out of poverty until they finished college and moved out! Now they are in poverty because of student loans…so they moved back in….there is no rest for the weary!

  5. June 9, 2013 at 5:03 PM

    One question – I notice you wrote this blog post early in 2011, before the first stirrings of Occupy Wall Street. Now, 2 years later, OWS get only occasional mention as a once-promising event in the vein of the Arab Spring. Do you notice any trends or themes in our political or social realms that show enduring effects which OWS brought on the scene?

    • Annabel Ascher
      June 19, 2013 at 1:46 PM

      OWS really helped show us what the powers that be will do to suppress dissent. But they couldn’t stamp it out. The Occupy movement had to move off the street to survive, but is very much alive in cyber-space. Look how many activist organizations are using the term. Now we can occupy anything. This beats getting rolled under by police brutality or discredited by the actions of infiltrators.

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