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Excerpt: 'This Land is Their Land'

Could You Afford to Be Poor?

There are people, concentrated in Manhattan's Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, who still confuse poverty with the simple life. No cable TV, no altercations with the maid, no summer home maintenance issues — just the basics, like family, sunsets, and walks in the park. What they don't know is that it's expensive to be poor. In fact, you, the reader of middling income, could probably not afford it.

A 2006 study from the Brookings Institution documents the "ghetto tax," or higher cost of living in low-income urban neighborhoods. It comes at you from every direction, from food prices to auto insurance. A few examples from this study, by Matt Fellowes, that covered twelve American cities:

• Poor people are less likely to have bank accounts, which can be expensive for those with low balances, and so they tend to cash their pay checks at check-cashing businesses, which, in the cities surveyed, charged $5 to $50 for a $500 check.

• Nationwide, low-income car buyers, defined as people earning less than $30,000 a year, pay 2 percentage points more for a car loan than more affluent buyers.

• Low-income drivers pay more for car insurance. In New York, Baltimore, and Hartford, they pay an average $400 more a year to insure the exact same car and driver risk as wealthier drivers.

• Poorer people pay an average of 1 percentage point more in mortgage interest.

• They are more likely to buy their furniture and appliances through pricey rent-to-own businesses. In Wisconsin, the study reports, a $200 rent-to-own TV set can cost $700 with the interest included.

• They are less likely to have access to large supermarkets and hence to rely on the far more expensive, and lower quality offerings, of small grocery and convenience stores.

I didn't live in any ghettoes when I worked on Nickel and Dimed — a trailer park, yes, but no ghetto — and — my average wage of $7 an hour, or about $14,400 a year, I wasn't in the market for furniture, a house, or a car. But the high cost of poverty was brought home to me within a few days of my entry into the low-wage life, when, slipping into social worker mode, I chastised a coworker for living in a motel room when it would be so much cheaper to rent an apartment. Her response: Where would she get the first month's rent and security deposit it takes to pin down an apartment? The lack of that amount of capital — probably well over $1,000 — condemned her to paying $40 a night at the Day's Inn.

Then there was the problem of sustenance. I had gone into the project imagining myself preparing vast quantities of cheap, nutritious soups and stews, which I would freeze and heat for dinner each day. But surprise: I didn't have the proverbial pot to pee in, not to mention spices or Tupperware. A scouting trip to Kmart established that it would take about a $40 capital investment to get my kitchenette up to speed for the low-wage way of life.

The food situation got only more challenging when I, too, found myself living in a motel. Lacking a fridge and microwave, I had to get all my food from the nearest convenience store (hardboiled eggs and banana for breakfast) or, for the big meal of the day, Wendy's or KFC. I have no nutritional complaints; after all, there is a veggie, or flecks of one, in Wendy's broccoli and cheese baked potato. The problem was financial. A double cheeseburger and fries is a lot more expensive than that hypothetical homemade lentil stew.

There are other tolls along the road well traveled by the working poor. If your credit is lousy, which it is likely to be, you'll pay a higher deposit for a phone. If you don't have health insurance, you may end up taking that feverish child to an emergency room, and please don't think of ERs as socialized medicine for the poor. The average cost of a visit is over $1,000, which is more than ten times what a clinic pediatrician would charge. Or you neglect that hypertension, diabetes, or mystery lump until you end up with a $100,000 problem on your hands.

So let's have a little less talk about how the poor should learn to manage their money, and a little more attention to all the ways that money is being systematically siphoned off. Yes, certain kinds of advice would be helpful: skip the payday loans and rent-to-pay furniture, for example. But we need laws in more states to stop predatory practices like $50 charges for check cashing. Also, think what some microcredit could do to move families from motels and shelters to apartments. And did I mention a living wage?

If you're rich, you might want to stay that way. It's a whole lot cheaper than being poor.

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