The Econopack Problem

One of the assumptions that gets made a lot about poor folks in this country is that they are stupid, and not capable of making good purchasing decisions in places like the grocery store. It’s always charming to be reminded that people assume both that poverty is the result of a personal failing/stupidity, and that poor folks aren’t capable of managing their own affairs because, you know, they’re poor, so that obviously renders them incapable.

Newsflash, for those of you not previously aware of this: Poor folks are not stupid. But they are often forced into shitty purchasing decisions for a whole lot of factors. We’ve talked about some of them before here; issues like lack of access to options, limited transportation, having to juggle lots of tasks with shopping, and so forth. There’s something I want to zero in on right now because I’ve been noticing it coming up a lot. I call it the econopack problem.

Generally, when you buy something in bulk or you buy a lot of stuff packaged together, the per unit cost is cheaper. It’s cheaper for me to grab rice out of the bulk bins at Harvest than it is to buy a bag. I can buy the same amount of rice for less, even. It’s cheaper to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper, per roll, than it is to buy four. A lot of manufacturers offer economy packaging and it’s a lot less costly to buy things that way.

There are a lot of reasons for doing this. It definitely encourages people to cut down on packaging, which is good for the environment. It’s less expensive for manufacturers to package stuff in big containers than it is for them to make a bunch of small ones. And so forth. It’s just generally cheaper to buy larger sizes of things.

Per unit.

It is not cheaper in terms of the overall sticker price. If you are living on a food budget of $20/week, say, you cannot AFFORD to buy an economy-sized bag of beans that costs $5, so you’re forced to buy the little pack with the higher per-unit price for $.99. Because that’s what you can afford on your budget. If you’re buying toilet paper, you would probably prefer to buy 24 rolls for a low per-unit price, but you have to buy the four pack, because it is what you can afford.

Packaging is shrinking and prices are going up; my five pound bag of sugar is now a four pound bag of sugar. Poor folks are feeling this acutely right now. The response is often that they should just buy the larger package or go for bulk. Neither of these are good solutions. The larger size package is too expensive. And buying in bulk isn’t an option if your store doesn’t have a bulk section, which, you know, a lot of stores do not. Bulk tends to be more common in upscale stores, I’ve noticed, which are both more expensive and located in areas poor folks may not be able to reach.

Being able to buy large sizes is also a function of having a place to put them. People who are homeless or who live in small spaces (like, say, people renting rooms in a house where there’s no safe place to put supplies other than their rooms) do not have oodles of space for stacking up their bulk goods. People living alone (already experiencing a higher cost of living) may not be able to finish something packaged in bulk on their own before it goes off, and thus buy small containers. I do this a lot with things I know I can’t eat in full and I hate it, because I hate the waste of packaging involved, but throwing out food is pretty awful too.

People act like poor folks are too stupid to know they’d save money by buying large packages. Trust me, most poor folks are well aware of the fact that per-unit costs drop radically when they buy stuff in bulk or in big packages. They would much prefer to pay $.39/roll than $.99/roll for their toilet paper. But that option is not available to them because their bottom line won’t permit it. When you are operating on a very limited budget, you cannot simply decide to blow your whole week’s available funds on a giant package of toilet paper even though you know it’s cheaper and would be a better buy.

The focus on improving conditions for poor folks is often on individual education, treating it as a personal rather than a cultural and systemic problem. The issue here is not that poor people don’t know how to do math and are getting bamboozled into buying miniature containers of everything. The issue is that they cannot afford to buy things with high overall price tags, even when the per-unit cost is cheaper and they are well aware of it. You cannot get blood from a stone; if you have a limited food budget you cannot exceed, you cannot magically make more money appear so you can buy things in bulk. You can’t cut your food budget to save money for bulk purchases because, probably, your food budget already doesn’t really cover your food costs.

Every time we tell poor folks they are failing at life, we are telling them that everything is their fault, their problem, and their responsibility. Poor folks didn’t wake up one morning and decide to make it more cost effective to package in bulk than it is to package in small sizes and they most definitely didn’t think it would be awesome to have limited food budgets that force them to make crappy purchasing decisions.