In the critically acclaimed, though rarely seen, movie Killer of Sheep (1978) there’s a scene that highlights why being poor can be so expensive.
The film is about a black family living in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the 1970s. In an attempt to escape the drudgery of their everyday life, the family decides to join some friends one Saturday in taking a day trip out to the country. Before they can even get out of Watts, though, the car gets a flat tire. They don’t have a spare so they have to ride back home on the rim.
Not much is made of the event by the characters in the movie, but those who are poor (or have ever been poor) know exactly what it means. If they weren’t able to pay for a small repair like a flat tire they certainly won’t be able to pay for the damage that comes from a bent rim. The car will either be abandoned or be sold for scrap. Either way, it means the same thing: they no longer have a car. Life for them will became just a little bit harder, a slight more miserable.
That’s one of the worst things about begin poor: almost everything becomes a luxury good.
If you’re higher up on the economic ladder you get things fixed, whether tire or teeth, before the repairs become even worse and become more costly. But when you’re poor, even small repairs are more than you can afford. And they lead to catastrophic consequences. It’s not that you’re ignoring a situation or ignorant about the inevitable disastrous outcome. You know it’s a problem and that it’ll be an even bigger problem in the future. There’s just not much you can do about it.
Eric Ravenscraft has an excellent example of how this happens: