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Jewish World Review August 23, 2004 /26 Elul, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Maybe we're blinded
by too many bargains | I look at the price of apartments, and I despair. Then I look at the price of pillows at Just-a-Buck, and I'm a madcap millionaire. Queen Midas. Leona!

Karl Marx, it turns out, got it wrong. No - not about communism. Well, he got that wrong, too. But he was really wrong when he said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." It's not faith that's blinding us plebes to our misery. It's bargains.

The real opiate of the masses is the 99-cent store.

"There is something so liberating about going into a store and knowing that nothing is out of your budget," says 99-cent store addict Jill Isaacs.

"Liberating" is exactly the word. You are no longer a wage slave when you enter the dollar store. You da man. Why rise up against low pay or social service cuts when you feel you're doing fine? From soap to school supplies to snacks, everything you need is cheap as Chinese trinkets. And so are the Chinese trinkets! Poverty hurts a lot less.

A friend of mine who happens to be homeless was spared a painful Christmas by the 99-cent store: She did all her shopping there and didn't have to leave anyone off her list. The bargain store was her safety net when society's safety net failed.

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That store continues to succor the masses. By 7 a.m., there are usually dozens of people waiting for it to open. Many, said a security guard, come for the bread. Dollar stores mean lots of poor people don't go hungry.

Even for the less needy, dollar stores offer time off from tight budgets. When toothpaste is $1 instead of $2.49, there's enough wiggle room to buy, say, a puzzle for your kids.

And if you can afford a puzzle for your kids, you don't feel you're depriving them. And if you don't feel you're depriving your kids, that is a huge relief.

Maybe too huge.

Health care? College? Decent housing? Those are often way beyond reach. But four-for-a-dollar Koosh balls cushion the blow.

Providing respite from worry is how dollar stores have grown from '90s novelty to 21st century phenom: The Dollar Tree, a national chain, is opening a store a day, says its spokesman, Adam Bergman.

People there aren't just shopping for silly surprises, as many did at first. About 90% of their purchases are everyday items like toilet paper and batteries. They depend on these stores.

Shoppers now visit dollar stores as often as they visit the grocery. The trend is so widespread that Target and Wal-Mart are starting dollar departments, as are several supermarket chains.

The result is not just a chicken key chain in every slightly dented pot. It is closet full of Koosh balls and a false sense of prosperity.

Millions of Americans can't afford the real basics to keep their families safe, educated and healthy. Who knows? Maybe if they didn't feel so rich at the dollar store, they'd start demanding relief in the real world.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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