“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of okay for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.” – Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms
Terry Pratchett wrote many words on injustices within systems and on the importance of building support networks of people within said systems in his Discworld series. Men at Arms was written in 1993, the fifteenth book in the series, and the concept referred to as the “Sam Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness” caught fire. It’s not a new concept — poverty taxes exist in many forms across all life, such as bulk discounts for those able to afford the large upfront cost and who have the storage space for excess material — but the phrasing of the Boots theory was particularly catchy. Economics classes have used it as a pithy example of the poverty tax issue, and many who might have never encountered the concept understood it easily through the medium of fiction.
Enter Jack Monroe. Mx. Monroe is a UK-based food writer, journalist and poverty activist. I first encountered their work with their phenomenal food blog ‘Cooking on a Bootstrap,’ which details ways to actually live on poverty wages. Monroe grew up working class and spent years as a working-poor single parent — all of the recipes and tricks they write about come from experience. Thanks to their luck with their successful blog, they have since used their greater platform to highlight inequalities, support hunger relief programs, and be a vocal activist for labor and poverty issues. Their new campaign is a price index to track basic food products, labeled the “Vimes Boots Index,” in honor of the late Sir Terry Pratchett. This past month has included the official authorization from the Pratchett estate for the name, with the author’s daughter, Rhianna Pratchett, stating that her dad would have been proud to see his work used by for anti-poverty campaigns.
But why do we need a new consumer price index (CPI) at all? The UK government is one of many that offers such a service and it has continued to do so throughout the changes of Brexit, pandemic, and global shipping disruptions. But according to Monroe on twitter, the offical UK CPI “grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least.” According to the UK government, inflation was at 5.4%. This official number was calculated assuming purchases from a list of 700 items including legs of lamb, bedroom furniture, televisions and champagne. According to Monroe’s personal tracking in their local grocery store, non-champagne food prices were doubling and tripling. Take rice, for example. It is a common staple in poor households as it is cheap, sold in large quantities, and very easy to adjust to make it feel like a different meal from day to day. In their local store last year, Monroe noted that they could purchase a 1kg bag of rice for 45p; but last week the price was £1 for a 500g bag, or a 344% increase. Adding insult to injury, the number and variety of ‘value products’ has significantly dropped in stores. Situations like this example have been happening in grocery stores all across the British Isles, with two and a half million British residents using food banks as a result during 2021. This infuriating disconnect between the official numbers and the lived experience of the average British person caused Monroe to reach out to economists, charities, and analysts to create the new price index. The Vimes Boots Index is intended to “document the disappearance of the budget linesand the insidiously creeping prices of the most basic versions of essential items at the supermarket” and “serve as an irrefutable snapshot of the reality experienced by millions of people,” as stated by Monroe in their Observer column on January 22, 2022.
It’s not just poverty activists and those directly affected who have noticed the rise in food insecurity. Richard Walker, the managing director of the grocery chain Iceland (focusing primarily on frozen foodstuffs) gave a statement on ITV January 21st that his stores were losing customers to “food banks, and to hunger.” That customers weren’t being priced out and going to different stores, but that the next step was charity or starvation. The director then went on to pledge that their £1 range will stay at the £1 rate until the end of 2022, in order to give customers a reliable budget item. But Iceland remains a lone raft in a sea of rising prices.
The increased visibility of the extreme inflation of food prices at the lowest end of the market and the influence of the newly formed Vimes Boots Index has already had real-world impact. As of January 26, 2022, the Office for National Statistics has admitted that “one inflation rate doesn’t fit all” and Monroe reported that the office will be changing the way that they collect and report on both inflation in general and food prices in specific. These changes will take into account a wider range of income levels and household circumstances. While more accurate reporting of the problem will not make the problems with rising food costs go away, higher visibility of the issue will hopefully lead to support at a larger level than community-based support.
Tegan has helped with beta reading and editing on this blog for a while now, and she decided she also wants to do a weekly post about topics that catch her attention. As always this is part of our effort to make ends meet, as my immigration status doesn’t allow me to get wage labor, so this blog is my only source of income. You can sign up to help us pay the bills at patreon.com/oceanoxia. The great thing about crowdfunding is how little each contributor needs to put in; in this case as little as a dollar per month – that’s like three cents a day! Pocket change! We could use it to buy better boots!
Anyway, thanks for reading, and take care of yourselves.
It is very expensive to be poor.
When I was young my jalopy of a car spit out its water pump. I owned tools necessary to do the job but those were 700 miles away. I got a ride on Friday but because there was no public transport and I couldn’t afford to pay for a ride my car simply had to work on Monday. I asked around and found a shade tree mechanic that would do the job. He wasn’t cheap compared to if I did it myself, $70 for a $35 water pump and $60/Hr working slow, but he got it done and it worked come Monday morning. Cost me almost $300 when $300 was several weeks wages but I didn’t have a choice.
Now, with money and tools on hand, a second vehicle, and both interpersonal and internet connections, I shop around. I find deals. I can take my time. Consider options. I don’t need to use the mechanic I can walk to and the mechanic knows he doesn’t have me over a barrel. I save a lot of money.
Fact is having money and options gets you treated better. My boss went from simply announcing I would work the weekend to politely asking, sometimes accepting no for an answer, once he figured out I had money enough to walk off the job.
Poverty is expensive. For the poor, and for the surrounding society. Homeless people use more emergency services. They get sick more often and tend to hold off seeking medical attention until they are at death’s door. Which means they need lengthier and more expensive medical care. That hacking cough and pneumonia that would be cleared in ten days of antibiotics now required hospitalization, IV antibiotics, and the possible use of a ventilator. Costs get into six-figures fast.
I don’t find calls for fairness to be persuasive. Life isn’t fair. I do find arguments that promote a living wage, universal health care, and low-cost housing to be convincing simply because the costs to society are much lower. It simply doesn’t make sense to spend thousands keeping people poor and homeless when simply making sure they have a living wage and shelter is a fraction of the cost. They live better. We live better.
Who Cares says
I have literal experience with what Pratchett described there.
One year working for the local postal services. Aside from requiring you to buy your own working boots/shoes they direct you to an affiliate that sells triple A brand office shoes. These lasted less then half the mountain hiking shoes I bought at an outdoor store. The price of the outdoor shoes the store sold started at the cost of those triple A shoes (before the affiliate dropped the price to 2/3 for buying as a postal worker).
Literal comment from my family: “Good thing you have enough money to buy decent shoes for the work you have to do.”
Brian Drayton says
It’s very cool to hear Tegan’s voice in this space!
An abiding problem with social policy is that it has become OK to be all utilitarian, and “satisfice” our systems. If a majority — or even a plurality — is served, then the system is as good as it needs to be. It gets worse, of course, if the planning is not even for a plurality, but rather for “the people that count.” Then somehow it’s left to others who don’t count – investgative journalists (e.g. Henry Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor) or social activists (e.g. Jane Addams (Democracy and Social Ethics) or compassionate souls (many mostly uncelebrated) — and satirists like Pratchett or Swift — to even notice the ones whose lives are “externalized'” by the social calculators.
I generally agree, except for all of it.
Let me rephrase that: I agree with the conclusion, I just hate how you arrived at it.
People deserve dignity either way. It doesn’t matter how useful they are. Or rather, it shouldn’t matter. That’s capitalism whispering in your ear, telling you that a little bit of genocide really isn’t all that bad, if it hits the right people… (The lazy, fat fucks you just happen to hate already, maybe?)
Here’s my problem: Say the math suddenly reverses. Say it suddenly promotes libertarian ideals or conservative ones? Would your stance on universal healthcare shift along with the math? If so: Congratulations! You’re a common opportunist, uninterested in ideals! Good for you, I guess! You’re being rational™!
This is the same bullshit argument Bill Gates has used to tout women’s rights: They’re good because it has economic benefit, not because women deserve rights.
It’s a rather ass backward way of looking at things, IMO.