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:
Transportation has two major hidden costs when you’re poor. First, lots of expensive car repairs are avoidable…if you have money to fix them early on. I used to ignore changing my brake pads for months. My car would start making that familiar squealing noise that indicated I didn’t have much time left before the brake pads were gone. I hated the noise, but I hated overdrafting on my account more. So, I turned the stereo up a little louder and tried to drive less.
Replacing brake pads can cost an average of $145, depending on your car. If I had to spend $145 to change my brake pads (assuming I even had that much in my account), at best I’d wipe out my food budget for the month. At worst, I wouldn’t have enough to pay utilities. So I’d put it off.
On at least one occasion, my brakes got so bad they were grinding down the rotors. In case you’ve never had this happen, grinding rotors makes a terrible, metal-on-metal sound. Replacing a rotor also costs hundreds more than replacing brake pads. Sure, I successfully put off one expense, but when the rotors broke, I was screwed. The longer I waited on basic maintenance, the more expensive the repairs got.
Waiting was often my only option, though. Unlike buying healthy food, there were times I literally didn’t have the money. Not “I have this money, but I shouldn’t spend it.” More like, the car repair is $145 and I have $12 in my account. And I still have to drive my car to work. There’s no third option.
Ravenscraft’s article—which I highly recommend reading it its entirety—contains other examples of how poverty can be brutally expensive. It’s important for more Americans to understand this point. In fact, if I could make people who have never been poor understand just one thing, it would be how insanely expensive life can become for the working poor.
Much of the discussion about poverty in our country tends to focus on the macro level. While it’s important to consider broad, general effects like unemployment or welfare policy, it’s just as essential to consider what we can do on a more personal level. There is so much we Christians can do for the poor, both as individuals and churches, if we simply take the time to find answers to the question, “How can I make life less expensive for the poor?”