The Price of Poverty: How MetroCard Savings Can Wind Up Penalizing the Poor


Yesterday’s news that MetroCard prices would definitely be rising in March came as little surprise; the potential for a fare hike has been reported on for months now, and the new $2.75 base fare and corresponding increases in the weekly and monthly unlimited cards are the exact numbers that have long been bandied about: $31 for a weekly card, up from $30; and $116.50 for a monthly, up from $112. Despite the fact that these increases were accompanied by higher bonuses granted on the unlimited cards, they will undoubtedly have an impact on lower income New Yorkers for whom the thought of spending well over $100 at a time on anything is too much to financially bear.

In “Why MetroCards Are Like Paper Towels,” WNYC looks into the fact that the majority of MetroCards sold in low-income neighborhoods in New York are weekly unlimited rather than monthly, even though monthly unlimited cards have the potential to be far better deals. WNYC compares the purchase of MetroCards to being akin to the purchase of bulk items, like paper towels, at Costco, and notes “the savings, whether for paper towels or subway rides, are not the same for all people: They are higher the more you can afford to spend at one time. And that, according to advocates for low-income New Yorkers, means the fare structure punishes straphangers of limited means.”

Of course, this is just yet another example of the tax that low-income people pay just for being poor, because they can’t afford to get to a place where they will then be able to experience savings. After all, it doesn’t matter that much if you can save eight extra dollars a month by buying a monthly card if you can’t afford to part with $116.50 at one time. WNYC reports that other cities, like San Francisco, have discounted cards for riders who can prove that they are low-income earners, and other approaches include charging more for rush-hour travel, since most low-income earners travel during off-peak times. The discounted fares could be implemented in the same way that senior citizens and students get discounted cards, and switching to peak and off-peak fares would also be simple enough, and is a system that was already discussed for this city “in 2007, but [was] later abandoned… finances were too precarious and the authority wanted to avoid a lengthy debate.”

Of course, this is just one more example of how unequal the playing field is here in New York: The fact that the best MetroCard savings can more easily be had by those who need them least is not the only unfair thing about New Yorkers’ commute. As gentrification has continued apace, lower income residents have continued to be pushed further and further away from where the majority of available jobs and business hubs are located, meaning that they wind up with far longer commutes than those who can afford to live near where they work. In that sense, time has become the ultimate luxury in New York; the difference between having a one-subway-twenty-minute commute to work and a two-subway-and-a-bus-hour-and-a-half commute is immeasurable.

New York City residents are lucky enough to have one of the best (though obviously still imperfect) and affordable public transportation systems in the world. But if a large number of its residents are not able to enjoy the modest financial bonuses that the wealthiest get to enjoy, then there is a huge problem, and one that can and should be addressed. The price of being poor is high enough, and the city should work to bring it down whenever possible.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. “a large number of its residents are not able to enjoy the modest financial bonuses that the wealthiest get to enjoy”?? News flash, the wealthiest are hardly taking public transportation. Moreover, it’s not the poor who suffer most, because chances are they don’t have a steady job they have to get to everyday. The MTA needs our money NOW, so encourage people to buy more now and, therefore, spend more now. The sooner MTA gets its money by selling their services in advance, the better services they can provide at the best prices – so everyone benefits. THE MTA is getting something for offering that discount and the “wealthiest” are paying for it by parting with their hard earned money a lot sooner.

  2. True. But it could be worse: as you say, poorer people often travel longer distances to work; at least New York, unlike some transit systems, doesn’t charge more for longer commutes.

    Also: Why do moron right-wing piece-of-shit trolls pretend that most poor people don’t have steady jobs?


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