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Check-cashing stores are to banks as X are to Y
September 27, 2012 11:51 AM   Subscribe

I was fascinated by this episode of 99% Invisible about how banks are too confusing, stuffy, and weird for many lower-income customers and how check cashing stores are taking advantage of this by offering really simple, straight-forward, more transparent (but expensive) financial services. What other institutions, businesses, services, products, etc. are designed for middle-income or wealthy people that confuse or put off lower-income customers?
posted by shotgunbooty to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
Smartphones on long-term, unlimited data contracts.

Buying smartphones at list price without the "subsidy" of a contract, and then paying for data megabyte by megabyte seems straightforward, and if you're a light user with a few-models-old phone might be cheaper, but could turn out a much worse deal if you are (or become) a heavy browser, don't have the computing knowledge to do things like turn off data roaming, or any other stream of things people with unlimited plans don't need to think about unless they're going abroad.
posted by mdonley at 12:01 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Stores like Whole Foods, certainly, are geared toward middle-to-upper-income people and may put off lower-income folks due to price points, if nothing else.
posted by xingcat at 12:04 PM on September 27, 2012


I remember reading that a lot of people want to pursue higher education but don't even consider it an option because they think it's too expensive. But they are unaware of all the tax credits and other financial aid programs programs available.
posted by mcmile at 12:05 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cars? Selling on the monthly payment ($199 down, no down payment, all credit applications accepted!!!!!!!) makes it look easy and straightforward, when in reality the lower income folks are paying much more the car than would a middle or upper income person buying a similar car, if not that exact same vehicle.
posted by COD at 12:05 PM on September 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think university admissions and administrative issues put off a lot of people, not just tuition. I know people who found applications and gathering documents too overwhelming, even with support of high school and college counselors, and people who were frustrated with community college credits not transferring and just dropped out. It counts for a lot in just the application process to have family and community support and know-how.
posted by peacrow at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


Definitely car financing: most local TV stations will have their occasional exposes on how the monthly payment model screws over low-income people, even as they accept advertising money from the dealers who follow it.

In the US, doctors and associated medical services. There's a very big, if shadowy, para-healthcare industry (supplements, etc.) with a fair amount of scammy stuff, but the barriers to entry are much lower.

On the flipside, variety/dollar stores -- the true "everything is [x]" ones -- offer a simple pricing model that may not deliver the best deal on every item to the demographic they attract.
posted by holgate at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2012


"What other institutions, businesses, services, products, etc. are designed for middle-income or wealthy people that confuse or put off lower-income customers?"

Costco would fall firmly into this definition. I remember the days it used to be either invite-only or limited to people who worked for specific companies/agencies who were even allowed to get memberships. The $50/year membership fee just to be able to shop there is definitely off-putting to those who have little disposable income.

Also, the whole model of Costco is you're buying good middle of the road to high quality items in bulk, which gives you savings over time. But the individual items you're buying are costly because of the bulk. I can't walk out of there without spending at least $150-$200 on a bunch of stuff that still doesn't cover my whole "have to buy" list of groceries. That said, the stuff I do buy at Costco will last me for those items for weeks or even months.

But people who have $50-$75 for a week of groceries can't justify spending 50% or more of that budget on a handful of items at Costco, even if it will last them for the rest of the year because they have other things that money has to go to TODAY.
posted by barc0001 at 12:13 PM on September 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


Income taxes. Filing income taxes for most low- and moderate-income people is relatively straightforward, but many still find the process confusing and intimidating. Tax preparers know this. Here's an excerpt from The Working Poor by David Shipler:
The preparers operate from sleazy check-cashing joints and from street-level outposts of respectable corporations. They do for a hefty fee what their clients could do for themselves for free with the math skills and the courage to tackle a 1040, or with a computer and a bank account to speed filing and receipt. But most low-wage workers don’t have the math, the courage, or the computer, and many don’t even have the bank account. They are so desperate for the check that they give up a precious $100 or so to get everything done quickly and correctly. “You get so scared,” said Debra Hall, who paid $95 to have her simple return done after ending twenty-one years of welfare. “I don’t know why it’s so scary, but I’d rather have it done right the first time.”
posted by mcmile at 12:14 PM on September 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


If supermarket chains have own-brand products in very plain packaging, customers with literacy problems may avoid them and buy the more expensive named brands. If the only difference between a tin of baked beans and a tin of dogfood is the writing on the label, anhyone with reading problems will buy the tin with a picture instead.
posted by Azara at 12:19 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cars, but "buy here, pay here" places that do weekly payments.

Rent-to-Own places, where someone pays by the week for things that one could buy with cash for 10% of the price.

Tax Refunds. People take their W-2 to Liberty Tax or HR Block and they pay to have a simple 1040-EZ or 1040-A prepared, one, because they think it's hard, and two, they can take a high interest loan out on their money, rather than wait for Uncle Sam to deposit a refund into a bank account, or send them a check. Even worse, they can get their refund amount put on a Visa/MC Debit card.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:21 PM on September 27, 2012


Visa applications (which may be essential or necessary for lower-income individuals). Many complex online forms are not fully accessible in general to people without their own computers, since they can't always be saved, or filled in within the time limits of a public library. (USAjobs.gov, seriously, you have so many issues.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:21 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Cars? Selling on the monthly payment ($199 down, no down payment, all credit applications accepted!!!!!!!) makes it look easy and straightforward, when in reality the lower income folks are paying much more the car than would a middle or upper income person buying a similar car, if not that exact same vehicle.

This is a great point. Buy Here Pay Here is definitely the vehicular equivalent to the neighborhood check cashing/payday loan joint.

Also rent to own furniture, though I don't know that those places are necessarily marketed as being more accessible/understandable to poorer people, just that if you can't afford $500 out of pocket for a couch, but you can afford $15 a week, that's your option. Even though it ultimately means you pay $1000 for a shitty couch and constantly have to worry about your basic furniture items getting repo'd when you miss a payment.
posted by Sara C. at 12:25 PM on September 27, 2012


Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy may be somewhat dated (it doesn't really anticipate the enormous rise in subprime mortgages or the subsequent financial crash) but it's a good book about the industries that prey on poor people -- check cashing, pawnshops, payday loans, etc.
posted by Jeanne at 12:27 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Government bureaucracy, like jetlagaddict says, is gigantically discouraging to people who don't have the resources to hire someone to navigate it for them. Getting a passport, getting a birth certificate, getting citizenship, getting local parking permits—all of those things are ridiculously abstruse and off-putting.
posted by carsonb at 12:28 PM on September 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't know that the College Board deliberated designed itself for middle class parents, but I've been on both sides. As a middle-class parent then as a volunteer helping lower income kids negotiate the whole college applications process, I found the College Board to be insular and tone deaf in terms of its application process. They should get some blue collar and low income parents on their Board of Directors. Or maybe send a videographer to follow those parents as they try to help their kids wade through the SAT application process. It would be an eye opener.
posted by Elsie at 12:30 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even worse, they can get their refund amount put on a Visa/MC Debit card.

That reminds me of another one. Refillable cash cards and gift cards. I never understood why there were several racks of those in my inner city Walgreens (I know people give them for gifts, but...?) until I worked with a guy who for didn't have a checking account and yet sometimes needed to order things online. Rather than using a debit card online to buy something, he'd buy a gift card in the amount of his purchase and use that to buy the thing.
posted by Sara C. at 12:32 PM on September 27, 2012


Shopping online can have price and convenience benefits but presumes an ability to pay for/access an internet connection as well as a permanent/reliable/safe place to accept delivery.
posted by juliplease at 12:41 PM on September 27, 2012


Computers and the internet. As experienced users it is easy for us to navigate new systems, websites, interfaces and software. But for people who have not exposed, they look incredibly complex.

I remember when I first saw Metafilter. There was so much text, so many options, so many questions about what to do, where to go, how to use it.

I remember when I first saw Gmail's threading system. I went to reply to someone and I didn't know if I'd replied to myself, to my previous email, or to the person I was trying to reply to.

And the more technology advances, the harder it is to keep up. I went laptop shopping and with some of these deals they are snapped up in a heartbeat. SATA, solid state drives, intel vs AMD processors, different gigahertz, screen resolutions, battery life, reviews, weights, RAM type, how many cores. I mean it is just staggering. And that is just to purchase one and not get a piece of junk that can't handle today's video streaming services and what not.

And that isn't even touching the password management, phishing, java exploits, proper browser choice. Heck, you have to explain to many what a browser is, and we are all familiar with the readwriteweb fiasco where folks were confused. Then you get a computer and want the internet, now you're dealing with wifi, passwords, routers, modems. I mean this is all knowable to us because look where we are. But for those who aren't middle class enough to have the money and the time to understand these ever changing systems, it's blinding.
posted by cashman at 12:42 PM on September 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


The court system. To navigate anything other than small claims, it takes either a whole lot of research and discipline or a paid lawyer. And getting pro bono legal help is difficult (there is resource scarcity and the process of finding and being taken on as a client by a pro bono agency can be time consuming and complex).

A member of my extended family, who is lower-middle class and not very sophisticated, simply ignored legal notices and has had a couple of default judgments entered against him for debt collection. When I found out about them I offered to help and asked why he would just ignore a court document. He explained that years before he'd been a defendant and he went to court at the appointed time. He said that he didn't know what to do or where to go when he got to the courtroom, that the judge and lawyer talked to each other in language that he didn't understand, that it was all about the paperwork and he felt like he didn't really have a chance to tell his story, and that the end result was a judgment against him. The whole process left him feeling more stupid and disrespected than he felt when he walked in. So, he said, why bother wasting the time to show up?

I am a lawyer, and as I thought about my courtroom experiences I couldn't disagree. Our court system is horribly user-unfriendly. And sometimes it feels like it is that way by design.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:46 PM on September 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


Navigating the special education system (US, I bet it's the same elsewhere). I've done a lot of fighting, including getting legal assistance and specialized consultants and writing to people all the way up to the state level; my kid now has a great IEP.

I know other parents in similar situations who can't afford to hire experts and wouldn't know how to go about it anyway and don't have the comfort I do with writing to Very Important People, and their kids don't have great IEPs.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:54 PM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


[Folks, please answer the question being asked.]
posted by jessamyn at 1:03 PM on September 27, 2012


I am not a lawyer, but:

Estate planning (and legal services in general). I remember reading some interesting stuff about how part of the wealth gap in the US has to do with misunderstandings about estate taxes, inheritance, etc. The reluctance many people (including middle and upper class people) have to paying an attorney to help sort things out after a death can mean that they pay debts of the deceased when they don't have to. And estate planning might not be high on your list of priorities for ways to spend disposable income, with the result that fewer of your assets pass to your descendants after you die. It doesn't help that it's tough to get an idea of what it would cost to get the planning you need.
posted by phisbe at 1:13 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nthing a lot of these. I didn`t go to university for a lot of reasons, but one was that the whole process of applying and getting credits and coordinating all of that into some kind of degree seemed terrifyingly confusing and unattainably difficult to complete. I wound up in an incredibly shitty, exploitative private career college instead.

I grew up without a car, and I don`t know how to buy a car or the whole insurance thing. It`s actally going to be an askme if I ever have that much money. Related, I don`t understand how a gas station or pumping gas works, and asking someone is really embarassing. (I will, when the time comes. But it`s embarassing).

I used to be scared to go to restaurants that weren`t fast food or diners because they were intimidating and I didn`t know how they worked. Cafes were the worst- do I go to the counter and order, or do I sit down... when do I pay, before or after... etc.

Getting a haircut or otherwise using a salon service is the same. I`ve never been to a nice hair salon, even when I have the money, because it`s intimidating, not knowing where to go or what to do or whether you tip or what to say to the people and whether to pay before or after... ugh. Same with using a big hotel. You can sit in the lobby, even if you`re not staying at the hotel... you can eat in their restaurant... this was weird and confusing to me.

Using a gym was another one I had trouble with for a long time. You know, like what the hell is `towel service`... wait, so am I allowed to use the pool or not... what are all of these different, unnattached expenses...

anywhere that looks really fancy, shiny, expensive, independant or high end. Any place where the sales people pay too much attention to you instead of ignoring you or not noticing you. Anywhere that people are too polite or too nice or have much better manners than you do or are really clean or very nicely or expensively dressed. Any service where there are lots of small expenses instead of one overall expense. Any situation where you'll be required to say words that you don't know how to pronounce. Any specialist where you don't have the knowledge neccessary to adequately explain the help you need. Anywhere where you think or know that you will not be taken seriously. It`s scary, to me, it just is (Well, not so much now. But it was, back before I started exposing myself to those situations).

I think a lot of it isn`t just confusion, per se, as a lack of exposure. I mean, now I can go to a restaurant or a cafe or a nice hotel with chandeliers or someplace where people are in suits, and it`s no big deal because I`ve done it, I get it. But if you`ve never done something or been exposed to it, it`s intimidating, because you don`t know how it works or what to expect, or what is expected of you (and, if you`re me, you`re always worried that everyone`s noticing how you don`t belong there and they`re just getting ready to kick you out).
posted by windykites at 1:20 PM on September 27, 2012 [42 favorites]


For profit universities.

You see the ads on TV or public transit. They make it seem so easy. Two years and I'm working as a dental assistant. Sounds easy enough. They take credit cards. There are like three degree programs to choose from, all of which sound very down to earth and like they relate to real-life jobs you could get. The classes are at night and on weekends, or better yet, all online.

And yet they're more expensive than traditional universities and don't pay off in terms of future career success. Not to mention that, unlike community colleges, you can't leverage the credits into a four year degree if you decide it's for you.

NYC actually has ads on the subways now explaining that these places are scams, and that you can probably qualify for financial aid to get the same degree from an accredited community college.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on September 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


Another one, that is a little ironic: accessing free and low-cost resources and services. Often, these resources (low-cost dental care, food banks, recreation programs, etc) exist, but are not very heavily advertised. If you do find out about them, the process of first determining eligibility, second applying, and third actually using the service, can be super complex and off-putting.

Example: one food bank I know of requires a screening phone call. You can only phone between 10 and 4, but not between 12 and 1 (when they are having lunch). You will probably get the answering machine, which is usually full. Then, if you ever manage to get through to someone and are approved through the screening, you have to schedule an in-person appointment, where you have to bring proof of your income, living expenses, address, etc. etc. etc. and these appointments, again, can only be scheduled between 10 and 4. Then, if they look over your info, you might be allowed to access the food bank and get a cartful of groceries for the month. Or you might not.
posted by windykites at 1:32 PM on September 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


Windykites, you make a great point about cultural capital in general.

As a child of the upper middle class, one of my favorite things in the entire world is that you can go into just about any classy hotel lobby and sit there and read the paper or dick around with your phone or whatnot, and nobody will bother you. Also, they have amazing bathrooms, and nobody will look at you funny if you go in just to pee. Some of these places even have table service from the bar or restaurant and a waiter will bring you a coffee or a diet coke or some other token snack item for not very much more money than it would cost from starbucks/a bodega/whatever. It's a tiny luxury, but it feels so fucking good. It's like getting a massage or spending too much money on shoes, but instead of $150 you spent $5. Is $5 for a cup of tea too damn much? Sure. But it's a lot less than other things people waste money on.

This strikes me as exactly the opposite of the lower class experience. And the only real difference is the social capital to know that this exists and feel comfortable taking advantage of it.

I'm not sure if the above is a real answer to the question, but there's a kernel of germane-ness in there, somewhere.

Also, windykites, I don't know where you live, but I will happily teach you to pump gas.
posted by Sara C. at 1:34 PM on September 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


Restaurants. At different price points, and in different cultures, there are completely different scripts one follows.

Fast food restaurant - you walk up to the counter, look at the menu, order something that's cheap, and they give you food. You sit down and eat it. Then you might clean up your own dishes.

Frufru restaurant - you step up to a wooden podium that may not have a sign on it, and wait until someone notices you, then later they lead you to a table and give you a menu, then someone comes to take your order, but it's only for drinks. Then, later, someone comes to take your meal order. There's a menu with several pages of choices, and none of them look familiar or comforting. And everything costs much more than you expected.

Finally, when you pay the bill, you don't walk up to the register. You leave your money on the table. With a 15% tip. And you leave your dishes on the table.
posted by zippy at 1:50 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have noticed that you can generally tell how expensive a clothing shop will be by how much empty space there is. Places like TJ Maxx are absolutely stuffed with things, I guess to reinforce the "you're getting a bargain!" message, while high-end boutiques are usually quite sparse and rarely have a full range of sizes on display. Whenever I see a shop that has about three racks of garments I think "that place must be crazy expensive." Also holds for places like the Coach store, which literally has about four purses on display and nothing else.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:50 PM on September 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Places that require a car to reach them: out of town stores, the countryside, leafy suburbs, many potential workplaces.

Jobs that assume one has a suit at an interview.
posted by rongorongo at 1:52 PM on September 27, 2012


Navigating the special education system (US, I bet it's the same elsewhere). I've done a lot of fighting, including getting legal assistance and specialized consultants and writing to people all the way up to the state level; my kid now has a great IEP.

Using a gym was another one I had trouble with for a long time. You know, like what the hell is `towel service`... wait, so am I allowed to use the pool or not... what are all of these different, unnattached expenses...

accessing free and low-cost resources and services. Often, these resources (low-cost dental care, food banks, recreation programs, etc) exist, but are not very heavily advertised. If you do find out about them, the process of first determining eligibility, second applying, and third actually using the service, can be super complex and off-putting.

I am middle-income and had no idea that there were services for my small child who had a speech difficulty until a stranger mentioned it. I think a lot of these things are just terribly advertised (if advertised at all) and therefor off-putting for everyone.

I am scared of the gym. It's just off-putting.

Agree with the court system, lawyers being off-putting and not available for lower-income. I wonder about the divorce rate of low-income. Is the divorce rate lower because they can't afford either the filing fees or the attorney fees?

Jobs that assume one has a suit at an interview.

Totally this.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:02 PM on September 27, 2012


A lot of poorer people simply stay separated. Also, I believe the marriage rate is lower at lower incomes somewhat for this reason.
posted by Sara C. at 2:07 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I could *definitely* see financial aid (especially fin aid for private schools) being basically inaccessible to lower income communities. It costs something like $25 each to send a CSS Profile to be considered for financial aid for a private school, and if the parents are divorced or widowed and one can't provide or refuses to give complete information...well, you're pretty much screwed. That, along with the cost of sending SAT scores, transcripts (for transfers), application fee...you can get a fee waiver but you have to know to ask.

School loans are a whole different monster...I remember applying to college at 17 and my mom signed a PLUS loan for something like $25,000, which she is still paying back. She didn't go to college, and since I was only 17 we both found the loan process confusing and frustrating. The interest rate is high and if you weren't a Wonder Child (low income, first generation in college, etc. but just happened to miraculously get a 4.0 GPA and join 5,000 school clubs) you're not getting any scholarships.

I also found it unfair while I was applying to colleges that they favored students with "leadership experience," lots of extracurriculars, maybe some service trips, camp experience, or perhaps a part-time job. I didn't have a car, I lived in the suburban sprawl, and my mom often worked overtime and couldn't provide me with reliable transportation to such extracurriculars. And forget about "trips" or "camp"!

I could go on and on about the educational system here.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 2:10 PM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


- Any job application that requires you to apply online (I understand why they do it, but let's be realistic about the message it's sending)
- Any perk that you can get for being a frequent user (frequent flier miles, airport club lounges, special seating and baggage handling for people with certain credit cards - some of these places give you perks for just signing up)
- Volunteer and other opportunities that presume you have transportation and childcare needs met (I was on a board for a health clinic that was supposed to have a certain number of actual users of the health clinic serving on the board which was a great goal but very difficult to attain without trying to make some efforts to make sure people could get child care and bus tickets or rides to get to the meetings) or that meet during the work day presuming people have day jobs where they can take time off (see also: doctors and other places only open during the 9-5 workday)
- Anything that has a membership fee and then use fees on TOP of that (social clubs, private gyms, golfing and tennis clubs, fundraiser auctions where you pay to get in and then get to bid on things)
- Valet parking, mooring fees, owning vs. renting (larger discussion about that but the idea that getting money lent to you cheaply might be a smart money decision compared to renting), owning vs. leasing
- And yeah professional services especially lawyers and accountants. I have been managing my father's estate as executor this past year and there have been situations where paying a lawyer or an accountant a few hundred dollars literally saved us thousands of dollars that we might have paid had we not been savvy enough to do this (and been able to afford it)

In Vermont there is an organization whose entire purpose seems to be to make sense of the student loan/college financing mess with the message "You CAN get money for college, talk to us, our services are FREE" which is helpful and, I think, results in a lot more kids going to college who might not have known that they could afford it.

I grew up in a rural area so I definitely have a feeling that I don't understand the rules of fancy restaurants and other places like that but I also know that if I am generally polite and can afford it, people will be decent to me and forgive me most of the time. This level of self-assuredness is learned, not ingrained, and took me a while to get my head around.
posted by jessamyn at 2:14 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Airports and flying. Buying a ticket is mystifying - there are all these fees and different prices and different ways to buy tickets. Then there's the airport itself, with security and gates and baggage types. I didn't fly anywhere until I was 25, and I had to have someone help me figure it out. It's just assumed that everyone knows all about it. There's a humorous part of an episode of My Name is Earl that addresses this.
posted by unannihilated at 2:18 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Along the lines of everyone mentioning financial aid and higher education, I think just figuring out that there are all these millions of colleges you can apply to is very foreign to a lot of lower income people. I grew up in a working class family, first generation college student, and even though I was an awesome student and scored at the top of my class (of 1000 students) on all the standardized tests, I didn't get any scholarship money for college except two tuition waivers for financial hardship. Why? Because I had no idea there were all these tiny colleges out there with huge endowments who would love to have me as a student. I only applied to the big state school I was vaguely familiar with and the big private school nearby that was Ivy caliber. Then I'm out there in the working world and have colleagues talking about all these little colleges they went to where money was thrown at them, even though I know I was a better student than them!! Very frustrating.

Careers are similar -- if every grownup you know is a schoolteacher or office worker or farmer or mechanic, you don't know things exist like occupational therapist, engineer, physician's assistant: high paying, in-demand jobs besides doctor/lawyer that don't take an insane amount of schooling to get.
posted by jabes at 3:05 PM on September 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


To add onto unannihilated's comments about flying -- how baggage is handled on planes. I sat next to a young man (probably 25 or so) on a flight last week who had never been on a plane before who thought he had to go get his suitcase during his layover and take it to his next flight.

I would add playing/hanging out in parks (the kind with green grass, not the kind with playlots and basketball courts). When I was a kid we were poor and lived in an urban area. When I was about 12, my mom married a solidly-upper-middle-class man and we moved out to the 'burbs. I vividly remember my mom telling me I should walk to a nearby park one day when i was bored. I walked there, and when I got there I didn't know what to do, so I came home. It took me a long time to feel comfortable sitting on a bench or walking around at a park.
posted by OrangeDisk at 3:13 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The building permit office/process. After trying to navigate that for our basement, I understand why so many homes have unpermitted work done. You can screw up right after you walk in the door -- 9-12 is "question asking" time, and 1-5 is when they issue permits (or something like that). If you come in looking for a permit at 10 a.m., they'll send you away. That's BEFORE you even get to the complicated process they have for deciding whose turn it is -- when you get there, your name goes in the "A" box. Depending on what happens after you talk to the first person, your name could go in any box from "B" through "G." But they're not consistent about telling you where to put your name next. And one person you see might tell you things look fine, while the other tells you to change those things.

That place gives me panic attacks. I'm grateful my partner can handle it, but I know that his ability to do that comes from a place of privilege.
posted by linettasky at 3:29 PM on September 27, 2012


I'm not so sure that the ultra-privileged can negotiate bureaucracy any better than regular folks--usually they hire someone to do all that paperwork. And lots of lower-income people can handle themselves in the various hoops they have to jump through to get welfare, WIC, approval to be foster parents, and so on. I know people who live in public housing who are very savvy about all sorts of government agency stuff that I've never had to deal with.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:41 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the college thing definitely applied to me. I got invited to apply to Princeton(!) and the collective reaction around the house was "lol like we could pay for that, nice JOKE Princeton!" because of course we didn't know how good their financial aid program was.

Another side of the college thing was professors who just assumed everyone was basically an 18 year old living in the dorms with unlimited free time to study and work on things outside of class. If you're a working adult (or even a working student), that gets old real fast.

Getting a driver's license in some states is a fucking nightmare and an all-day experience, so if you're from one of those states where it's walk in-hand over old license-get new license, it's more than a little intimidating when unhelpful people are shouting at you that no you need to be in THAT line not THIS line why are you in THIS line THIS isn't the right LINE everyone knows THAT?! And somehow, they do. Mostly.

Computers, in general. My dad refused to ever learn to use one because he tried once and couldn't figure out how to turn it on, so he just left.

I don't know about the gym as a class thing but I do know a lot of people intimidated because they think it's going to be like PE in school with angry people yelling at you and mean people making fun of you rather than a bunch of bored people wearing headphones watching basic cable. Of course, it doesn't help when they dot the walls with buff, pretty people and personal trainers always want to talk to you (upsell! upsell! upsell!).

I didn't start going to nice restaurants until I was a working professional and am still kind of weirded out eating in candlelight, to be completely honest.

The first time I was chilling in the lobby of a really nice hotel and one of the hotel staff wandered by to ask me if I needed anything, I thought it was like, you know, in stores where you don't look like you could afford anything where they're basically saying "Get out, poor scum." I didn't know he was actually being helpful until it was explained to me.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:56 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


you don't know things exist

this, a million times.

I remember talking to someone and, for whatever reason, they mentioned marine biologists. I was like "what the hell are you talking about? There's no such job!". There's a million jobs out there that it never even occured to me existed or could possibly exist, when I was a kid. Similarly, I had no idea what people in various professions actually did. Like a businessman. What in the hell is a businessman? What do they do? As far as I knew, they were just guys who walked around with briefcases and also were rich, somehow. Of course, I think part of that was just being young and inexperienced, but part of it was definitely lack of access, too.

valet parking
yeah man! I've always been confused about that.
posted by windykites at 4:02 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


And one more I just thought of: International travel. So, you need a passport, except if you're going to THESE countries where a driver's license will work BUT ONLY if it's a special kind of driver's license. But okay I've got a passport. Now for these countries, you don't need a visa, but for these you do, and whether you need a visa depends on what you intend to do there and for some countries you can get on a plane and just fly over but some you need approval in advance and then they'll want to see proof of a return ticket or lodging and...

fuck it, I'm going to Disney World.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:06 PM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Megabus. Back when I used to travel between college (Chicago) and home (St. Louis) on the regular, I had three options: Amtrak, Greyhound, or Megabus. Amtrak and Greyhound usually cost about the same amount, but Megabus was $1 if you bought the ticket far enough in advance.

I rode on all three several times and the consistent demographic difference between them was striking. Amtrak was usually solidly middle class. Greyhound was thoroughly lower and lower middle class. And Megabus was always middle or upper middle class, often college students and young families.

Megabus was *so* much cheaper than Greyhound, but it required you to buy the ticket online with a credit card, way in advance. So you needed an internet connection, a bank account, and the ability to make plans crazy far in the future--all things that you're a lot less likely to have if you're really poor. Greyhound, on the other hand, just requires you to show up at a bus station with an envelope full of cash. They even sell tickets at some 7-11 stores too.

I haven't ridden Megabus in a long time, so maybe things have changed and you can buy the tickets in person now. But back in 2007, riding Megabus was a really eye-opening lesson in class privilege and accessibility.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 5:02 PM on September 27, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm not so sure that the ultra-privileged can negotiate bureaucracy any better than regular folks

Not the ultra-privileged, but having a college education trains you to manage bureaucracy and fill out forms on time and accurately. Privilege also give you the confidence and expectation that of course you will be able to figure out the forms and of course the clerical staff will fulfill your needs. This isn't always true, and it is a reason that the middle and upper middle classes become so indignant when there is a glitch in the government bureaucracy while they're fulfilling requirements, but for them, the idea of the process isn't the least but intimidating.
posted by deanc at 5:34 PM on September 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'm not so sure that the ultra-privileged can negotiate bureaucracy any better than regular folks--usually they hire someone to do all that paperwork.

I actually had an experience somewhat like this on Monday. I had to go to the National Archives to do some research. It's in a forbidding federal building where even the fucking entrance is complicated. Then you go through airport-esque security and upstairs to the archive itself where there are 20 different rules for what you can and can't bring into the archives. And yet no signage or anything about the procedure for accessing materials, what is in what formats, what facilities the archives provide, where to start, etc.

Being a middle class white lady, I just sauntered right up to the desk with the people who looked like they worked there and asked for what I needed. The archivist (? librarian? research associate?) walked me over to a bank of computers and showed me how to use their database to find what I needed, fill out a stack of paperwork, and then finally access the materials.

Meanwhile, at the next desk over, an older woman with a thick accent is there trying to get a copy of some document that someone at Immigration told her was kept in the National Archives, but it actually isn't, and maybe there was some mixup, and now it looks like her daughter is going to get deported. This woman does not have the cultural capital to just ask for what she needs. She clearly doesn't feel like she belongs there, and the employees aren't treating her like she belongs there. She also doesn't have the ability to say, "I'll just go back to Immigration and explain." She took a day off work and came from New Jersey and had to take the PATH train and she is not leaving without the document, goddammit. And nobody is attempting in any way to guide her through this ridiculous complicated system. They're just a blank wall of faces.

As far as I could tell, the only difference between her situation and my situation was class, privilege, and money.
posted by Sara C. at 6:34 PM on September 27, 2012 [12 favorites]


Voting.
posted by skypieces at 7:27 PM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ordering stuff on the Internet. Even if they have access to a computer and credit/debit card, my poorer friends always ask me to help them with the actual order process.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:48 PM on September 27, 2012


Nthing the people who point out restaurants. I grew up impoverished. I'm now an adult, and while I'm not rich or even what I would consider middle class, I do have some expendable income. But anytime I'm in a restaurant fancier than say, a Denny's, I feel this intense discomfort and embarrassment. I went to Panera Bread and I was shocked by how bad the whole experience made me feel. Even though I could afford everything on the menu, my brain kept screaming "IMPOSTOR!" the whole time and it was compounded by the fact that their ordering process was new and strange to me, and I had no idea what to do, unlike seemingly every other (extremely well dressed) person there. I've never been there again because it's just so weird and uncomfortable for me.
posted by katyggls at 9:33 PM on September 27, 2012


Following up on the comments above about lawyers/accountants/etc., there is also the issue of knowing when you can get away without using them. For example, I organised the probate for my mother's (straightforward) will. This was just a matter of filling out a couple of short forms, paying a 100 pound fee, and attending a brief interview, with loads of detailed notes provided on the government website about how to do this. A lawyer would have readily charged thousands of pounds for this.
posted by Jabberwocky at 10:31 PM on September 27, 2012


Court. I had a default judgement against me for about $1000 of debt while I was living abroad.

I knew I paid off the debt and so went to court with my documentation confident that the problem would be resolved in one day. Wrong. Four months later I'm on my 3rd court date, a traverse hearing, to prove I was never served papers. This doesn't even count the 3 friday's I spent 5 hours waIting for free legal help.

I'm lucky that I have an understanding boss and flexible work schedule. How the hell does anyone with a strict 9-5 job and no money for a lawyer fight something like this?
posted by laptolain at 6:44 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


"
Also, the whole model of Costco is you're buying good middle of the road to high quality items in bulk, which gives you savings over time. But the individual items you're buying are costly because of the bulk."


The other issue with buying in bulk is that you need a place to store it, which might not be an issue if you have a larger house.

This might be UK specific as I know the bar to entry is lower in the US, but home ownership. The deposit for a house or flat here tends to be 30% of the total to secure a mortgage, meaning that even those on average or above-average incomes are unable to buy without inheritance/parental help. Renting rights are very limited here and it is very easy for those on low incomes, particularly with less knowledge of language or UK legislation, to end up in inadequate housing. There are rules in place to protect a resident's deposit, but this requires the money to fill out and pay for the court forms to start proceedings.

Definitely the workplace too - a friend of mine did not pursue a career in office administration as she could not afford to buy the clothing needed, and decided this was a sign that it was not suited to her.

The benefits system too - there are a lot of hoops to jump through and forms to fill in in order to claim to what one is entitled. It was taxing enough for someone like me who has done a degree and worked in offices, so dealt with paperwork and stating a case for something before, so I can't imagine how confusng it is for someone who maybe does not have good literacy skills or hasn't dealt with officialdom much. The main thing I found was that you need ID for a lot of this stuff - if you're poor, you can't afford to learn to drive (and I don't know if there is a cost involved in actually getting your license once you pass the test) you probably won't have a passport as either you wouldn't need one or you can't afford the £77 required to get one, so fingers crossed you can find your birth certificate to prove who you are.
posted by mippy at 8:16 AM on September 28, 2012


Nthing the people who point out restaurants. I grew up impoverished. I'm now an adult, and while I'm not rich or even what I would consider middle class, I do have some expendable income. But anytime I'm in a restaurant fancier than say, a Denny's, I feel this intense discomfort and embarrassment.

I feel like this in fancy hotels. I don't know why all these people want to pick up my stuff for me, and part of me can't get the thought of how much it costs and how little said staff are paid out of my head. When we went on holiday to Finland it was great to be able to stay in a self-service hotel.
posted by mippy at 8:18 AM on September 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Careers are similar -- if every grownup you know is a schoolteacher or office worker or farmer or mechanic, you don't know things exist like occupational therapist, engineer, physician's assistant: high paying, in-demand jobs besides doctor/lawyer that don't take an insane amount of schooling to get.

This is a really good point, and can even apply to middle-income people. I grew up solidly middle-income and never felt uncomfortable eating in nice restaurants or navigating airports or (beyond the usual frustration) filling out forms. But...the community I grew up in was rather blue-collar, a lot of the grown-ups were cops or teachers or office clerks or something.

Which brings me to...networking. Ask a successful, upper-middle-class white collar person, how do you get ahead in any given profession, they'll say "networking." Well, I don't know how to network. There's a lot of reasons for this, but I think one is that when I was a kid none of the adults I knew did that. You grew up, you got a steady job with the city, there were predetermined hurdles you had to cross to get promoted...and that was how it worked.

People whose parents were educated, white-collar professionals seem to generally have a much keener understanding of how to schmooze with people in such a way that a) you don't look like a jerk and b) they can help you advance your career. They are often able to just do it, they know where to look, what to say, how to act, etc. I, however, find the entire process very intimidating and confusing. I think part of this is that I never learned it through osmosis.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:18 AM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Several have mentioned various bureaucratic systems; I'd like to add to this something I learned from a book called Bridges Out Of Poverty:

Many (if not most) of the systems in place to help the disadvantaged (food stamps, housing assistance, unemployment) have been set up by middle-class folks. This means that the systems, while sensible to others raised with a middle-class mindset, are generally pretty inscrutable to those with a lower-income background.

Several great examples have already been given in which we can see this. Two from my personal experience: a food program and subsidized housing.
For a while my wife and I received "food stamps", which of course aren't stamps, and covers some things that are hardly food and doesn't cover some things which clearly are food, and the program has several different names, and one of the official names for it has changed recently (in our state). The extreme level of detail asked for in the paperwork, the proof of various things required, and just the massive number of pages of forms to complete was pretty daunting for us, who grew up middle-class. Not to mention the office we had to go to in order to get the paperwork to apply is in a remote part of town, well off the bus line, hard to find, poorly signed, and only open certain strange hours. If you make it there, there's a hard-to-grasp system for which line to stand in, what to ask for, etc. If you do figure out all the hoops and get approved for the program, there are "quarterly" reports mailed (inconsistently) about every two weeks. A whole other round of forms to fill out and proofs to provide, and it must be turned in typically within a couple of days of receiving it. I've heard some people complain about college students and people who "don't really need it" being on food stamps, while those who could really use the help commonly get denied...I think it's because of the broken system used to determine eligibility.
We also applied to a very nice (i.e., clean, quiet, well-located) apartment complex that had some subsidized units. Again the requirements for pay stubs, bank statements, phone numbers of previous employers, references from previous landlords, and on and on was intense. I've wondered several times about how people handle such situations if they aren't good record keepers (maybe don't even know what to keep or that they should keep some things), if they don't have a bank account, if they've experienced a natural disaster or fled an abusive situation...there could be any number of reasons why someone would simply be unable to comply with all those requirements.
posted by attercoppe at 10:17 PM on September 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Healthcare, especially in the U.S.

Step #1: Getting insurance. If you're uninsured, how do you find out how to get insurance? Even if you have a computer, is there one regulated website that helps you find the best program for you? What about the endless medical forms with big words and lots of signatures required? Or is there one state agency that helps you figure out which public programs apply to you? Does it require a good bit of effort to discover and navigate and book an appointment and have all the right cards and forms? When is that office open?

Step #2: If you even have insurance, it's a nightmare to navigate. Doctors are often full. Their offices are busy and staff not super accommodating. Presenting a website with a "searchable index of 10000 local doctors" is not that helpful to someone with poor reading comprehension and especially if they're not competent with computers. Shit, I'm confident and STILL have a hard time figuring out what to do. Need a referral? The last time I needed one, it required approximately 8 different phone calls and 3 emails. The first referral from my GP was to Doctor #2 who wasn't accepting new patients. Then I asked for another one. But this Doctor #3 required not just a referral but detailed medical record notes about my medical issue. I had to remind Doctor #1 about this twice. Finally it was sent over but nobody at Doctor #3 would call me back to schedule the appointment. I left 2 or 3 messages before someone called me back. A week later, they called again to reschedule my appointment. In between all of that, I had to get bloodwork, and ensure that was transferred over to Doctor #3 before the appointment. My insurance company then claimed that a nurse wasn't covered under my plan and thus I would be billed accordingly.

In the end, it worked out. But all of this required:

a) Extreme tenacity with the expectation that it WILL work out. If you've had a lifetime of this BS, you have zero expectation that it'll work out, so one sticking point becomes the end point. I'm persistant because I've been trained to think that I will eventually find the magic key to open the locked door. Race, class, education, life experience. For example, I'm white: people will not dismiss me as they often do folks of color. Huge amounts of unspoken privilege especially in things related to the body and knowledge of your own body. Raised in a very stable family with health insurance the entire time. I feel comfortable in these situations, and know the social codes to getting through them fairly well.

b) Time. Lots of time. Lots of time during work hours.

c) English is my first language and I've got a graduate degree. I'm able to wade through piles of paperwork of fine print and figure out next steps. I can write strong letters back to the insurance company documenting how they are incorrect in their billing.

d) Computer skills, ability to go through databases and find someone, ability to do my own medical research to find the specialist I wanted to see. My own printer, to print stuff out to take to the doctor to discuss. Ability to do medical research and read journals through my academic institution.

e) Medical knowledge. My immediate family includes an experienced doctor. Not only did I know something was wrong, I was able to identify a few of the possibilities, narrow down my symptoms and show up at the original GP with at least a guess of the problem. This is important when you've gone to all that work just to get the appointment, only to be seen for 15-20 minutes. Not enough time to get through everything.

f) Prescriptions: another trip to the pharmacy. My drug wasn't in stock so the pharmacist was going to call my doctor for another version of the drug or a different dosing strategy. This meant a second trip back to the pharmacy and a $30 prescription. The drug had some side effects, so I called the doctor and played phone tag 3 times before getting her on the phone. She decided another dose was necessary, so I went back to the pharmacy for the 3rd time. Remember: all of this happens during work hours.

g) Support of my family. They listened to me complain and encouraged me to keep going. They didn't have 6 other more pressing problems than me trying to get this issue solved. They could help me and give advice. Sometimes they'd take time off work to come to an appointment with me. If your family has not successfully navigated this before, it's really hard for anyone to help you get through it.

h) Urban area, with good public transportation. Lots of doctors, lots of choice, lots of medical resources. I did not have to travel for routine tests or specialized medical equipment.

i) Piles of cash. Co-pays, blood work, prescriptions, parking lots, medical supplies. All told, this little issue probably cost $300 with fantastic insurance. I expect it'll increase to $400-$500 before this little issue is over. Not including lost time at work. I'm hardly rich and am underemployed. But this isn't going to kill my grocery bill or ability to buy a winter coat if needed.

Even though I am lucky enough to have the above privileges, it was a giant, huge, insanely annoying, expensive, frustrating and insulting process. From start to finish, that was about 6 weeks of work, for a very minor issue.

A few years ago, I was going through a fairly serious illness, and it required a ton of decisions, navigating various specialists, taking time off work, the ability to keep track of my own records and symptoms and data points, and more money. This went on for about a year. The management of the illness was exhausting, let alone the illness itself.

The entire time it was happening, I'd see other folks in the waiting room, and just want to hug them for the sheer amount of effort it must have taken them to get through to this particular doctor, and urge them to keep on going at it. There's a kind of weariness in waiting rooms, because of all the energy it's taken just to get that far.

I often thought that if it was that hard for someone who had so many advantages, it just seemed nearly impossible not only if you were "down on your luck" but just not among the most privileged out there. Seeing it written like that, it sounds kind of condescending, but it's a backwards way of intensely recognizing my own privilege, and realizing how every single little step of the way could potentially throw someone off that trail. Elderly folks, lots of women, people outside mainstream expectations for gender presentation and body size, folks who had distrust of the medical personnel, folks with difficult relationships to their bodies from abuse or illness, single moms, recent or not-so-recent immigrants, unemployed, working poor, people of color, uninsured, disabilities, and really,... regular middle class families with insurance but not the other 'social capital' to push their way through the system. Not to mention those who have two or three or four strikes against them.

When I hear a friend or acquaintance is going through a difficult illness or medical problem, one of the first things I say is "you are amazingly strong to have made it through the process this far; hang in there, and be compassionate towards yourself because this system will tear you down and make you crazy." One of the frequent responses is some variation of: "At times I wonder if it's worth it, if I'm worth it." If you know sick folks navigating the healthcare, remind them often that they are loved, that they are worth fighting for, that this hassle is worth it. It can mean a lot.

One of the more practical things I've done for friends is to go over and organize reports, medicines and insurance bills. I've made up easy to follow prescription schedules because it's impossible to keep track of 1 med 2x daily, 1 med 3x daily, 1 med 1x week, etc. If they're comfortable discussing their illness with me, I help them figure out their questions, and either research for them, or write them down in a numbered list, so they can show up at their appointment with a list in hand. We write down a linear narrative of when the problem started, what's been done so far, and what has/hasn't worked. We make a little medical folder for their next appointment with the narrative, list of written prescriptions, and the list of questions. It's a little thing that can really help get individual people through the next hurdle.

It's one thing to "know" medical care is difficult to access. Seeing how it played out, practically speaking, throughout my serious illness, was an intense life lesson. It made me into a radical advocate for massive healthcare reform and access.
posted by barnone at 2:08 PM on September 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


But people who have $50-$75 for a week of groceries can't justify spending 50% or more of that budget on a handful of items at Costco, even if it will last them for the rest of the year because they have other things that money has to go to TODAY.

The less money someone has, the more they need to think in terms of cashflow rather than total income and spending.
The poor live pay-check to pay-check and have to time their spending carefully, even for routine expenditures like groceries.
The middle class generally need to keep enough cash in their current accounts for monthly mortgage payments, but they have enough "float" in the account that they don't need to take into account where they are in the payroll cycle when they buy groceries.
The wealthy only need to make sure that over the course of years they spend less than they earn, making a lot of money on one deal and not having any income for months doesn't matter if you have a large buffer. Even if they don't have liquid assets available, they can borrow cheaply.
posted by atrazine at 3:21 AM on September 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


katyggls: "But anytime I'm in a restaurant fancier than say, a Denny's, I feel this intense discomfort and embarrassment. I went to Panera Bread and I was shocked by how bad the whole experience made me feel. Even though I could afford everything on the menu, my brain kept screaming "IMPOSTOR!" the whole time and it was compounded by the fact that their ordering process was new and strange to me, and I had no idea what to do, unlike seemingly every other (extremely well dressed) person there."

But here's the crazy part:

Denny's isn't that cheap. In fact, eating a meal at a "low end" restaurant rarely costs less than an "upscale" fast-casual chain or local cafe. Sure, McDonalds looks cheaper than Panera (for whatever reason), but when the bill's been tallied up, they usually come out about the same for me.

Urban food stores are even more guilty of this. Their products and selection are terrible, they offer almost nothing in the way of fresh/healthy foods, and they actually usually cost more than any other (non-Whole-Foods*) grocer. I'm convinced that Murry's is just a scheme to kill the poor via malnutrition and diabetes.

*And, really, can we stop citing the most egregious outliers in these discussions. There's a whole spectrum of supermarkets, and I don't get why people tend to fixate on just one end of that spectrum. Are there really any markets that are served by a Whole Foods, but not a mid-range grocer just down the road?

I think this feeds back into the theme of this thread. It's expensive to be poor, and low-end establishments love to take advantage of these biases.

That said, I've overcome this particular bias. Eating out is always going to be expensive, and it makes more sense to look at an establishment's menu than it does to fret over its cachet or clientele. It's not uncommon to find "expensive" restaurants that serve awesome burgers and sandwiches for under $10.

And, yeah. I get the "discomfort" thing completely. Conspicuous displays of wealth are just downright weird to me, and I agree 100% with Mippy's hotel comment. A few months ago, I got flown to a fancy hotel on somebody else's dime -- it was for a good reason, and I guess I was being compensated fairly, but I have never felt as uncomfortable as I did in that limo. [And yet, that limo was still cheaper than renting a car and parking it for 3 days, so there...] I also instinctively made the bed in the morning, because it was a really big room, and I felt bad for the person who was going to have to clean such a large space. I felt so out of place there.

Oh, and then there was the time I applied to a private high school that I really had absolutely no business attending. I had the grades, but not the "lineage." I'm pretty sure that I was immediately disqualified at the door when I was dropped off to my admissions interview in my mom's 14-year old Saab, wearing Old Navy Khakis and a blazer that I had clearly borrowed from somebody else. The interview process only further pounded it into me that I really just didn't belong there.

I didn't learn any lessons from this, and applied to Georgetown a few years later, which was even more bewildering and offputting. No matter how much I wanted it at the time, I was never destined to become one of "those people." Thank god for that.

posted by schmod at 10:32 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


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