Some More News: Why Being Poor Is So Expensive

Just over a year ago, Tegan wrote a post for me about the Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, and about the Vimes Boots Index that it inspired. For those who are unfamiliar with the theory, you should read more Terry Pratchett. Since doing so will take some time, however, I’ll share the relevant excerpt:

“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

The unfortunate reality is that this phenomenon extends far, far beyond boots, and is by no means limited to the pages of fiction. In our capitalist society, almost everything that’s used by rich and poor alike seems to be designed to be cheaper and easier for the rich, from durable goods, to banking services, to healthcare, and beyond. In fact, it’s such a big problem (in my eyes – rich people don’t think it goes far enough) that one could fill up and hour-long video (including ads) just digging into why it’s so damned expensive to be poor. If only there were people who did that sort of thing…


  1. Katydid says

    Can confirm! My first apartment out of college in the St. Ronnie Raygun’s 1980s was a 2-bedroom, pre-WWII drafty brick building in an unsafe part of town. I shared that with 5 other college graduates. 6 people in a 2-bedroom apartment, paying about 75% of our income toward rent. The gas stove leaked and couldn’t be used, the refrigerator was from the 1950s and the freezer portion was a metal box inside the refrigerator itself that kept food tepid. The water wasn’t safe to drink and we really shouldn’t have been bathing in it, either.

    Likewise, the apartment was drafty and we couldn’t afford to keep it warm in winter; we were paying $300/month to maintain an ambient temperature in the 50s.

    So, we had no way to keep food safely cool and no way to cook it. The apartment had mice, cockroaches, and ants, so there was no point in keeping food around the house. Therefore, we had to buy and eat each meal separately.

    At one grocery visit, I won a 2-liter bottle of the store-brand soda…and I burst into tears with joy of having something safe to drink. It didn’t fit in our freezer, so it sat out on the counter and we all enjoyed it, rationing it like it was champagne.

  2. says

    Well, that sounds pretty grim. I hear you on the roaches and mice, though. My last flat was in a complex in Glasgow that came with roaches pre-installed. The one before that, in Somerville, didn’t have roaches until they used poison to get rid of the mice. That’s when I learned that mice eat roaches.

    It wasn’t until we moved to Dublin and managed to avoid bringing the infestation with us (not an easy task) that I realized just how much of a mental toll their presence in my home had been taking.

  3. Katydid says

    @Abe, yes, living in apartments means you can never get rid of the problem. You treat your place, they run over to the next and then come back.

    The cost of buying each meal out was ridiculous. The cost of just heating the apartment in the winter was ridiculous. The physical and mental cost of stringing several jobs together just to survive was ridiculous.

    I ended up joining the military and liked it enough to make a career of it. Especially in the early years, they provided everything; food, shelter, work clothing, etc. etc. They let me use my computer science degree and use it! (In the 1980s, nobody would hire a “girl” with a comp sci degree)

  4. says

    Yeah. That’s why I try to be pretty careful not to put the blame for military actions on soldiers. Part of the whole “keep them poor and desperate” strategy is directly tied to recruitment. It’s similar to how people often turn to “crime” to survive

  5. Katydid says

    The front part of Gen X really got kicked in the teeth; we kept hearing from the Boomers “we didn’t have to pay for college and YOU do, haha”. We graduated into St. Ronnie’s recession, and we couldn’t get hired because the big blob of Boomers ahead of us were squatting in all the jobs.

    So, the military paid for both my master’s degrees, gave me housing and food and medical care, employed me in a job field I’m still using after military retirement (s/w dev), and took me to some amazing places all over the world. I have no regrets, particularly having seen the bleakness of utter poverty before the military.

  6. says

    Makes sense to me. Any port in a storm, any float if you’re drowning.

    The question is – can we build a world with better options for future generations?

  7. Katydid says

    Actually, it wasn’t a port in a storm–it was literally a future where I ate every day, and a career I really enjoyed. I had my kids in a military hospital and didn’t have to worry about surprise bills and what was/was not covered, I knew if any member of my family was ill/injured, we’d get medical care. I knew I was going to have a job–no surprise layoffs. I had an employer that was supportive and paid for both my master’s degrees and provided childcare for my kids before they were old enough for school. I got to travel for fun

    As for options, turns out the military was the best thing I could do. And I’m certainly not alone. However, there’s a real problem now with young adults looking to join the military but either being too heavy to be accepted, or not being fit enough to get through Basic.

    If you’re talking about options to succeed in life, that seems to come and go in waves. The Boomers had it easy, Gen X struggled, the early Millennials graduated college and landed in 6-figure-salary jobs, etc. etc.

  8. says

    I’d call myself an “early millennial”, and I haven’t noticed that among my peers.

    And as you may have noticed, societal change is kind of a theme on this blog, and I’m not talking about the kind of change we saw with the rise of neoliberalism.

  9. Katydid says

    I was a child in the dying era of the hippies and was too young to notice all the sell-outs. I’ve read Bill McKibben and Jared Stone and have a whole collection of homesteading books on the topic of how to be fairly self-sufficient on an acre of land. Ecological change is something important to me (which is why I came to your blog).

    Having lived in a variety of cultures in my childhood and continuing on through my adult career, Having usually had access to American tv through my life (whether through the network or through Armed Forces Network), I’ve seen circular patterns in American culture, going from boom times to lean times.

    You’ve made me think, now I’m going to go research.

  10. Katydid says

    Yup, we don’t have to agree on everything. I appreciate your POV because it makes me reflect on my own, and I often learn new things from you.

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