Why the working poor don’t just save up for a car while eating beans and rice

Conservatives are notorious, and rightly so, for generally dismissing the working poor as “low time-preference” or “unwilling to do what it takes to get out of poverty”.  This comes in the form of ridiculous statements very similar to the title of this post.  

The working poor can’t save up enough for a reliable car while taking very unreliable public transit, which is all that’s available in most parts of America.  A reliable car, in my experience in both high and low COL areas, costs about $2500 in cash.  That is the lowest reasonable amount to guarantee a low maintenance, sub 100k mile car that is reliable for someone with little mechanical knack.  Most working poor can save about $200 per month on paychecks from two part-time jobs totalling $1500-2000 per month.  This means it would take about a year to save up enough to get that reliable car.

Problem is, I just noted the public transit they have to use to get to work isn’t reliable.  So what happens is that many working poor hold multiple jobs concurrently, constantly swapping in a new part-time job to replace the one they lost not due to “bad attitude” or any of the other loving, Christian terms conservatives throw around, but due to being late one too many times when public transit is flaky.  They mostly can’t get full-time jobs for this reason, and part-time jobs vary in tolerating the episodic lateness of public transit, often kicking the worker to the curb after a few months.  Well, if you can’t even reliably make that $1500-2000 a month because you’re always hustling for a new second or third job, you can’t save the $200/month consistently either.

Further, because of the commute logistics, it’s very difficult to even manage crockpot cooking with the scheduling flux and transportation instability.  So the working poor eat a lot of quick food even when they have cooking skills because it’s safer and more consistent.

Conservatives should spend more time thinking through the situations people are actually in when making bootstrap arguments.  No, every working poor person is not some brave single mother of three working nine jobs.  But many are single adults working two or three jobs as often as they can take a bus to them and struggling to have more than a few hundred dollars put by because without saner transit solutions, it’s extremely difficult to get to a financial level that permits them to purchase a reliable enough car to get more stable part-time or be eligible for full-time jobs with better prospects.  And no, it’s not easier to lug 100 pounds of beans and rice home and crockpot them up.  That is a favorite of conservatives, the imaginary poor person who easily can carry a 50lb sack of beans and a 50lb sack of rice home via public transit.

A great many conservatives have a veil of sweet amnesia over the frankly better circumstances they had if they were once working poor and this leads them to create all sorts of bizarre and mean motives for the working poor remaining so when the reality is often quite ordinary.  Reality is biased, just not in a conservative or liberal direction.


5 thoughts on “Why the working poor don’t just save up for a car while eating beans and rice”

  1. Yes, failure to think through the logistical nightmare of living in poverty is a mistake many make when pronouncing “Well, if they would only….” statements.

    Not only the problems of lugging home the beans and rice but the fact that they only have a few dollars for food in a given week and if they spend it on a few bulk items, then they will not have other essentials. They are then forced to buy small packages of many things to have a varied diet but then are penalized because the smaller packages aren’t more cost effective. It’s hard to get a break or any kind of traction when you are in that situation.


  2. Your post reminds me of a scene in the old movie version of Pride & Prejudice (it certainly does not occur in the book itself); in the scene, Lady Catherine stops by the Collins’ and proceeds to give some instructions to the hapless Mr. Collins, taking care to point our that “the Smees” are not to be recipients of her largess, due to their being members of “the underserving poor”. (to my distress, I am sometimes guilty of this thought process as well)


  3. Good post. The worldview of most conservative “Christians” is more based in Social Darwinism than any sort of notion of Christian charity. Conservatives are also pretty schizophrenic on issues concerning modern industrial agriculture. Only in America will you have “anarcho-capitalists” celebrating and defending a government subsidized corporation like McDonalds. McDonald’s entire business model would not be able to function were it not for government subsidizing!


  4. Good post. The physical, logistical and mental strain of a poor person’s days makes it impossible to get ahead anymore. A generation ago, you could live and work and shop in a walking-distance area and your $4/hr at 22 hr/wk would support a modest life with no savings, but also no debt. Not now. Today, we work for $10-15/hr, 12-35 hr/wk, with almost as much time on transportation as work hours for some of us, and go deeper into debt every day. And still pay taxes.


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