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Why you can't "bootstrap" yourself out of poverty

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind
Daily Ticker

It’s a counterintuitive idea to say the least, but it costs a lot to be poor in the United States. When money is at its tightest, cost-saving choices are often impossible to make, digging impoverished Americans deeper and deeper into the pit of day-by-day living.

A common narrative in today’s political arena is that the nation’s least fortunate only need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps – that they’re just not working hard enough. What often goes unnoticed, however, are the overwhelming barriers that those living below the poverty line face on a daily basis.

A car, for example, is a necessity for many jobs but the down payment can be insurmountably high. And even after the down payment poor drivers still face monthly payments, high gas prices, and the fact that low-income car buyers pay 2% more for a car loan than affluent people. Low-income drivers can also pay up to $400 more annually than wealthier drivers to insure their cars (for a car of the same model and with the same driver risk).

Related: Here's how to win the War on Poverty

A lack of capital can also make it impossible to afford the security deposit on an apartment causing those in poverty to live day-to-day in expensive hotels. Chris Arnade, a friend of The Daily Ticker, has documented this phenomenon. Those in poverty who are able to rent or buy homes are also more likely to get household appliances through rent-to-own companies and end up paying more due to added interest.

Even saving money is a burden for the poor, as banks often charge large fees for those who don’t have a minimum amount of capital in their accounts—this makes cash checking establishments, who charge incredibly high interest rates on pay-day loans, the only choice for many.

Ben Hecht, CEO and president of Living Cities, an organization that works to revitalize impoverished areas, joined The Daily Ticker to discuss why it costs so much to be poor.

“Many of us are salaried employees and many poor people, if they’re working, are hourly employees,” explains Hecht.

If you’re an hourly employee who needs to apply for benefits or even see a doctor, you’re missing out on vital pay, Hecht points out.

Related: Abandon hope? Obama’s new poverty program needs help from Congress

Another challenge that low-income Americans face is a lack of services. “If you walk in many neighborhoods they’ll have one store—it may even be a corner store and not a grocery store,” Hecht says. The competition that neighborhood stores typically face doesn’t exist in poorer areas, allowing them to charge more for goods.

High quality food and produce is also often hard to come by. “You can’t find fresh broccoli…and if you think about it, it’s a logical, rational and economic choice for people to pick fast food in cheaper and larger quantities,” Hecht explains. This leads to obesity and other health issues that end up costing individuals more down the line.

“In many cities there are food deserts where you can’t even go to get the fresh food that we’re used to everyday," Hecht says.

Related: Poverty Is America’s “Only Growth Sector”: Howard Davidowitz

One of the biggest disadvantages that those in poverty experience is a lack of broadband Internet. “One of the fundamentals about poverty is a lack of access to economic opportunity,” says Hecht. “And we all know that the number one factor in economic opportunity is education and we know that in today’s world much education, even in public schools, is done online.” 

Furthermore, the Internet provides social networks where we can exchange vital information. Hecht gives this example: “I gave a speech years ago to 500 folks who helped people get jobs and I said to them -- how many of you got your job by a reference? All of them. How many of you got your doctor by reference? All of them. The power of those networks is being shut out in these neighborhoods and without the access to those types of technology.”

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