There’s been a spate of news coverage recently of “food deserts” in America, a term I’d only heard once before, after writing about an experience I’d had a few years back at a Charleston laundromat.
At the time, I’d just moved and didn’t have my own washer and dryer. There had been other occasions I’d been without, but I had always lived close enough to my parents or friends to make use of theirs. Not that time.
I remember how, when I arrived at the laundromat in Kanawha City, it had just opened for the day. I was relieved there were few witnesses as I bumbled around, making every rookie mistake — loading machines without first checking to make certain they worked; forgetting my detergent at home and having to fork over $2 per load at the vending machine; believing I’d brought enough change, or that I’d find a working change machine if I didn’t.
But there was more I hadn’t anticipated. Like the people I’d see, or how they’d open my eyes.
As I was struggling with the dryers, a bus stopped and a woman climbed off, awkwardly lugging two bulging bags of clothes, two small children in tow. As she crammed too many clothes into two washers, I wondered if her things would even get fully wet, much less clean. If I’d had more change, I’d have offered some so she could’ve thinned out her loads, but by that point, I wasn’t certain I had enough for my own.
I’d believed I’d brought plenty of money but was innocent about the cost of such things. To do a little over a week’s worth of laundry, with detergent, was right at $25.
I feel obnoxious, or perhaps obnoxiously fortunate, to admit I’d never given coin laundries much thought, but now know they’re mostly used by those who can’t afford a washer and dryer. In other words, those least able to afford spending $25 to wash a week’s worth of laundry are those having to spend $25 to do a week’s worth of laundry.
When my former roommate checked into buying a washer and dryer, she found a local furniture store promoting interest-free financing and no-cost delivery — but only on sets costing over a grand. In other words, those who could afford fancier sets could buy without interest and have it delivered for free, while those most in need of such considerations could not.
It’s the same way with cars. A friend in a post-divorce, rough-credit situation applied for a car loan, yet the only interest rate she could get was 25 percent. Since she doesn’t live near public transportation, her only alternative is to purchase a high mileage, beater car that will likely only last a few months before needing to be replaced or requiring expensive repairs. And she’ll start the car cycle again.
After telling a co-worker about my friend’s car issues, the co-worker said, “She should move where there’s public transportation.”
“What about the cost of moving?” I asked. “What about the deposits she’d have to put down and the expense of renting a truck? Of moving her kids to a different school, away from their friends and teachers they know?”
She shrugged and said, “She should’ve made better choices.”
The coldness of the remark left me stunned into silence, then prompted me to head for my computer to gather my thoughts on the matter.
As I mulled it over, I realized many people in comfortable positions simply have no grasp on the difficulties faced by those in dire straits. I realized it often isn’t about choices at all, but about ability. About opportunity. About skeletons in closets and monsters under beds and how such creatures are managed each time they appear.
In this country, we hear about equality from the start. The education system goes overboard trying to make certain every little hand holds the same number of trophies, but that’s where life stops being equal. We’re born with different abilities and talents and opportunities, and simply choosing to chase after more doesn’t automatically mean someone is capable of getting it.
It’s easy to paint all poor with one brush, saying they sabotage their financial situations with unwise spending decisions, by getting a new tattoo rather than dental work that would’ve cost close to the same, or buying tobacco, alcohol or other questionable choices. And truth be told, that’s likely the case with some. Not all.
I know how difficult it can be to eat healthy on a modest income. The high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables is prohibitive for many, especially those living in areas without grocery stores nearby and no readily available means of transportation.
The “food deserts” that have been in the news are a very real thing all across West Virginia. There are so many areas where the only food sources are convenience stores or fast food, where shoppers generally pay too much for unhealthy items. Even those with access to grocery stores try to stretch the dollar by buying cheap, filling foods like ramen noodles, white bread and pasta — which often leads to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Buying in bulk is a cheaper alternative, but only if you have the money to buy more and access to a Sam’s Club type of retailer. And can cover the membership fee. And have a place to store quantity. And a way to get bulk purchases home.
Poverty isn’t the equivalent of moral failure. Those with low incomes are often forced to make complicated decisions about how to spend the money they have. It’s an exhausting way to live.
And one that deserves some respect.