In America, being poor can be an expensive proposition

Today I came across this very interesting, albeit depressing, bit of data. It’s an analysis by a travel site called Hopper that shows that it costs more to fly in states that have the lowest median incomes.

For example, the study found that in Mississippi, the poorest state, a “good deal” round-trip flight costs about $400, while in Maryland, the state with the highest income, an equivalent ticket costs around $300. The researchers also found that “typical round-trip airfare declines by $2.30 for every additional $1000 in median household income.” The reasons for the increased prices in the poorer states include “average distance traveled, demand density, and airline competition.” Presumably, there’s less demand and less airline competition in poor areas of the country because people there have less money for leisure travel, and also because those locales have less economic development and thus less business travel.

The higher price of air travel for low-income folks is yet another data point that paints a bigger picture: in America, being poor can be an expensive proposition. There are countless, painful examples of this. Food and other basic items tend to cost more in poor neighborhoods. The poor lack access to credit and so are easy prey for payday lenders charging exorbitant interest rates. Poor people are more apt to bounce checks; hello, fees for insufficient funds! There are also late fees for credit card payments — you know, the kind of thing listed in print so fine you need a magnifying glass to be capable of reading about it. But my personal favorites are those extra charges they tack on for restoring utilities they shut off because you couldn’t pay your bill on time in the first place. “They get you coming and going,” as my old man used to say.

In her classic book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich described a host of other expensive indignities that plague the working poor. For example, many of her low-wage co-workers were living in hotel rooms, which actually were far costlier, on a monthly basis, than local apartments. But the workers couldn’t move into the apartments because they lacked the month’s rent plus security deposit the landlord required. Many low-wage jobs also require uniforms, the cost of which comes out of the worker’s paycheck, or cars, which the workers are expected to maintain themselves.

There are even darker examples. I wonder how many Americans have put off going to the doctor because they lacked health insurance, sought treatment only when their symptoms were advanced, and ended up being bankrupted by medical bills as a result.

Many of the examples I’ve cited in this post could be greatly improved by some well-targeted regulatory fixes. The rights of workers and consumers against employers, the banks, and the credit card companies need to be vigorously championed, and in some cases, re-invented for our new digital era. There’s no earthly justification other than greed for the $35 bank overdraft ripoff, or the cell phone company gouging you to restore your service because your payment is late. It’s also long past time we bring re-regulation to the airlines. A more regulated airline industry might help bring down fares in certain overpriced markets. Our 30-year old experiment with airline deregulation has hardly been a rousing success — read the excellent 2012 Washington Monthly magazine article by Phillip Longman and Lina Khan for more information on this score.

In addition to more consumer regulation, we also need a much higher minimum wage and a far more generous safety net for poor people in this country. If poor people had more economic resources to begin with — if they simply had enough money to pay their bills on time, and to save a little money for a rainy day — they would never be forced to pay such an outrageously high price for being poor.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee