Posted by: David Stewart | August 15, 2010

How you and I screw the poor

My wife has a friend who lives in Portland who used to be homeless. They have coffee together every week, just coffee, and have been doing this for over a year. Let’s call her Alice (not her real name).

Alice had a rough time – I don’t know her whole story, but she is a recovering heroin addict. She has been willing to take the hard step of getting off the streets and accepting help.

There is a local Portland agency called Join that helped her get into a subsidized apartment. But her addiction trashed her health – she has almost no teeth, a heart condition and mobility issues which confine her to a walker.

But she is on disability, which pays her roughly $430 per month. She gets methadone treatments which cost her $250 per month. Her rent is $154, and is based on her income.  So by my calculation, she starts the month with only $26 per month for her phone, electrical, bus fare and, oh yeah, food.

She does get food stamps, panhandles and collects cans and shares the apartment with someone else on disability, which must help. But things are pretty much on the edge for her financially.

But as bad as things get, we’re not above screwing her for small change.

  • She has an account with Bank of America, which evidently was charging her $31 per month for things like home repair insurance. Now she isn’t a financial genius, but she said yes to a monthly charge that is totally unnecessary for her because Alice is a renter!
  • She does have a debit card, but with overdraft protection, she was being charged $35 every time she used the card with insufficient funds, rather than having the purchase refused. So a $2 bottle of Coke at a convenience store could cost her $37 if she was short on funds.
  • On a more subtle note, card processing fees are assumed by retailers rather than passing them on to card-using consumers. This causes them to just raise the prices of their goods. The problem is, poor people often deal exclusively in cash because they have poor credit. But this means they get hit with the increased prices without the privilege of using a card.
  • When she does have money to spend on food, the kinds of things she buys to eat emphasize the easy, because of her mobility issues. But Hawaiian Punch and frozen dinners are actually really expensive based on nutrition per dollar. But there are no resources in the grocery store to help her pick healthier alternatives with better, and cheaper nutrition.

With banking reform, customers are now able to opt of of overdraft “protection”, but a lot of poor people might not understand the consequences.

I’m ashamed of us, my friends.

I’m embarrassed that any culture that would stand by and callously keep this going. I’m angered by whatever Bank of America clerk that set up Alice’s bank account and stuck her with ridiculous fees, but likely that clerk was instructed by the bank to layer on whatever fees they could. Any compassion for Alice would probably have resulted in discipline or dismissal.

Here’s someone who is trying to get their life together, and we’re happy to leave them under our feet.

I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I don’t own a grocery store or a bank. But I can give food to a panhandler on the side of the road. I can take my business to a different bank. Those I have tried to do but it seems like there should be more.

And we should not tolerate treating the poor in this culture like dirt, screwing them for every last dime.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tyler Braun, Dave Stewart. Dave Stewart said: How you and I screw the poor: […]

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