the poor pay more

"The poor pay more" isn't just a cute rhyme: in many cases, the poor literally do pay more for the same (or worse) goods and services, compared to the wealthy.

This isn't the only kind of built-in inequality in society: even when everyone is treated equally, the poor may be disproportionately affected, for example by fines.

The Captain Samuel Vimes "Boots" theory of socioeconomic unfairness

Terry Pratchett (1993) gives a memorable description of one major aspect of the problem:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Men at Arms (1993)

Origin of the phrase

The phrase "the poor pay more" originates with David Caplovitz's (1967) book, The Poor Pay More. It's especially focused on door-to-door salesmen using high-pressure sales tactics to force (or even trick) people into buying low-quality merchandise at inflated prices, relying on the inability of their victims to navigate the court system to enable the practice to continue.

In developing countries

The poorest people in developing countries pay far more for the same goods and services (Prahalad, 2009):

For example, all too often, the poor tend to reside in high-cost ecosystems even within developing countries. In the shanty town of Dharavi, outside Mumbai, India, the poor pay a premium for everything from rice to credit. Compare the cost of everyday items of consumption between Dharavi and Warden Road (now redesignated B. Desai Road), a higher-income neighborhood in Mumbai. The poverty penalty in Dharavi can be as high as 5 to 25 times what the rich pay for the same services (see Table 1.2). Research indicates that this poverty penalty is universal, although the magnitude differs by country. The poverty penalty is the result of local monopolies, inadequate access, poor distribution, and strong traditional intermediaries.

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (2009-10), 35


Light bulbs

A study conducted in Wayne County, Michigan found that incandescent bulbs are cheaper, and LEDs more expensive, in poorer areas than in wealthier ones (Reames et al., 2018). This situation still exists nationwide (Tabuchi, 2022).


Caplovitz, D. (1967). The Poor Pay More: Consumer Practices of Low-Income Families. The Free Press.
Prahalad, C. K. (2009). The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (Revised and Updated 5th Anniversary Edition). Wharton School Publishing.
Pratchett, T. (1993). Men at Arms. Victor Gollancz.
Reames, T. G., Reiner, M. A., & Stacey, M. B. (2018). An incandescent truth: Disparities in energy-efficient lighting availability and prices in an urban U.S. county. Applied Energy, 218, 95–103.
Tabuchi, H. (2022, January 24). Old-Fashioned, Inefficient Light Bulbs Live On at the Nation’s Dollar Stores. The New York Times.
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