Why is it more expensive to be poor?

March 21, 2017

Like many British people, I’m mildly obsessed with the class system. But something we don’t talk about enough is the paradox that having more money means that you don’t need money so much. It’s much more expensive to be poor than it is to be rich. So many things in our financial system are skewed in favour of people who already have money.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, to try and get my thoughts into order, and a recent episode of Radiolab reminded me that “bargains are rare for the poor”, or as Bernie Sanders put it, “being poor is a very expensive proposition”.

If you don’t have enough money to get a mortgage, you can’t buy a house, so you rent, which means that you’re paying someone else’s mortgage. If you have got enough money to get a mortgage, but only just, the best rates aren’t available to you.

If you need credit, but your credit rating is bad, the loans are more expensive. As someone with a certain amount of money already, I want to buy a house, and a bank will lend me an enormous amount of money at about 1.5% APR.

Meanwhile people needing small amounts will borrow at eye-watering interest rates from payday lenders like Wonga (Representative APR 1,509%), or buy from shops like BrightHouse (Representative APR 69.9%).

Those companies, along with bookmakers, seem to be at the vanguard of a movement to extract every last penny from the poor and redistribute it to their shareholders - a kind of ghetto tax. Every time I walk down Rye Lane in Peckham, there seems to be a new betting shop opened. You don’t see the same mushrooming growth in wealthier areas, for some reason. Is it because they’re preying on desperate dreamers?

Similarly, for some reason, the only cash machines available in a lot of deprived areas are those that charge you for the privilege of having access to your own money.

If you want to go on holiday, you don’t have rich friends or family who can let you stay in their second homes. Or as Withnail put it, some things are “free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t.”

With a bad credit rating, you have to pay for energy through a coin meter, or use a Pay As You Go mobile tariffs rather than the cheaper monthly direct debits. The payment methods available for people on lower incomes tend to mean paying a higher rate for the same services - why is there a poverty premium?

It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself - if your parents are wealthy, you’re more likely to start off on the right foot, with an enviable range of advantages, such as support through education, help to buy a home, or being able to afford to work for nothing now in order to earn more later. At the other end of the scale, people get trapped into a spiral of debt, or they’re working so hard to stay above water that they can’t make plans for the future. Even if you can buy things outright, you’re more likely to “buy cheap, buy twice”, only being able to afford badly-made goods that are more likely to need repair or replacement. If all your time and energy goes on making enough money to pay the rent, it’s hard to educate yourself into a better position, and often for want of a nail the kingdom was lost.

In so many ways, I’m lucky. I have a relatively well-paid job. I went to a tech meetup recently, and I got free pizza and beer that I didn’t even want. Meanwhile, there are people outside begging, trying to scrape together enough money for food and/or booze.

We seem to be redistributing wealth to those who already have it. Companies are getting ever more tax efficient, while public services and charities struggle for funding. At a trivial level, successful musicians not only get free instruments, they get paid to use them. The same with footballers and their boots.

Does it have to be this way? Is it inevitable that the system favours those at the top and penalises those at the bottom? So many of these inequalities seem to be the waste products of the machine that powers our economy - perhaps freedom will always lead to the Wilt Chamberlain problem.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic, especially with the way politics seems to have gone over the last few years. The more our lives are lived out virtually, the bigger the risk that we end up proving that there there really is “no such thing as society”. But even in that famous quote from Margaret Thatcher, there is a recognition that we have a duty to look after our neighbours, and perhaps that’s where we can be hopeful - positive change can come from the ground up, if we work to make it happen.