Friday, September 2, 2011

The poverty tax

Yesterday we went grocery shopping.

Since Monday is Labour Day and Tuesday is the first day of school in our community the stores were full of families stocking up for the weekend's picnics and barbecues and buying back-to-school supplies.

We are both on medically restricted diets so we take shopping for food very, very seriously and are far more restricted as to our choices than were most of the people in the stores. Yet as I stood at the check-outs at the various stores I can to the realization that we were probably going to spend less on food for the next week than most of the families around us.


We always have a list so we are well organized. Neither of us is fond of sweets and neither of us is allowed to eat many of the foods that stores place at the end of aisles and at the check-outs just to tempt you.

But that isn't enough to explain why our grocery bill is relatively inexpensive since, after all, the same food restrictions that save us at the check-out also means that we often have fewer choices and can less often substitute the food we can planned to buy with "store specials."

We spend less to eat because we have the privilege of not being poor.

To unpack it:
We have a car.
Our time is our own.
We don't have to shop with children.[1]
We both enjoy doing math in our heads.
We never have to shop when we are tired.
We don't have to shop when we are hungry.
We can afford to stock up on things that are on sale.
We have a comfortable kitchen in which to cook.
We have each other company to help us shop, cook and clean.

And, once again, we have time.

We live no more than a 20 minute drive from the most distant store, there were two of us and it took more than 4 hours for us to shop just for groceries.

If we had shopped more quickly it would have cost us more. (How long are you willing to take comparing every single type of spatula in a big box store? We probably took 10 minutes. There was a 3 dollar difference between the lowest priced and highest priced acceptable spatula. We bought two. How long are you willing to take comparing every single brand of orange juice? You cannot just assume that the store brand will always be cheaper. Nor can you assume that just because that brand of crackers was cheapest last time the same will be true this week.)

Because we have the privilege of time, a car, no child care, and little stress we end up paying less than the people who most need to save those few dollars so that they can be spent on something else that is desperately needed.

The privilege of being (comparatively) well off makes it easier for us to continue to be (comparatively) well off. The costs of being poor ensure that it is harder for people to save enough money to get out of poverty.

In other words, in addition to all the other costs in their lives, the poor pay an additional poverty tax on their already stretched funds.

Or, as Sir Terry Pratchett put it The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

[1] In case you haven't noticed stores place items that children will be attracted to at child eye level. As far as I am concerned, in one of the circles of hell parents are forced to endlessly wheel grocery carts up and down crowded aisles with a least one child in the cart and another trailing behind them as both children cry out "but why can't I have it" as the cart goes by endless shelves stocked with toys and candy that the parents can't afford to buy.


1 comment:

  1. *nods vigorously*

    It is actually cheaper for me to eat at a local small family owned restaurant than for me to try to cook for myself. I have no freezer and due to some problems that are inherent in my fridge and other problems related either to mental illness or weird-unexplainable-things-about-how-my-body-works (and possibly both), most of the time, my fridge cannot be used.

    Anything I buy at a store has to be carried (by me. or by the cats, I suppose, but they're neither built for nor inclined to carry things) up five flights of stairs.

    I have to factor in the cost of gas for using the stove, electricity for the microwave, tap water for washing dishes (and spoons to wash them with on bad pain days). But I don't have the data to make those calculations. (I don't know how much I pay for a cubic metre of water, and I don't know how many litres of water I use washing the dishes. Etc.)

    If I go to a store to buy food that I can eat in one day (storage problems) and prepare for myself, I will spend twice as much as if I go down to that little restaurant where they will cook for me, wash the dishes after i use them, and as a bonus, my hot and stuffy apartment with no flyscreen on the windows will not get any hotter and stuffier from cooking.

    It doesn't make any logical sense to me why going to a restaurant is cheaper than cooking myself, but it is, and I get to eat variety and get more calories and nutrition this way, so that's what I do.


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