The pinch of poverty

Dara Squires
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I don’t think it’s too hard for most people, especially here in Newfoundland and Labrador, to imagine what it’s like to not have enough money sometimes. Anyone who lived through stretching out student loans and meager part-time income while studying knows what it’s like to be waiting for that cheque so you can buy food, or pay a bill, or get that winter coat you need.

Anyone from my parents’ generation knows, if only from watching neighbours, what hunger is.

It’s different, of course, when you have a family to support and when it’s your own family. But one would think there’d be some understanding and empathy for the situation of those of us who scrape by the skin of our teeth from one paycheque or benefit’s payment to another.

Yet, poverty, or being “poor” is filled with societal shaming, judgment, levelled criticism and disdain — even here.

I have a decent job, but I went five months without one — scraping by on self-employment income. But it doesn’t matter how good a job I have, as the single mother and sole support of three young children, I pay so much in child care in order to work that sometimes I’m better off scraping by.

The fact is, I’m the working poor. But I hate to admit it. The concept fills me with shame. And pain. And stress. Lots of stress.

If you’ve never had to go to a food bank or ask for help at Christmas so your kids can have food and toys, then you have no idea how much it hurts — how your chest tightens and your face flushes and your heart withers a little in your chest. Because you know that there’s no validation. It is wrong to be poor. And everyone is judging you.

I scrape by socially too. I’ve got a job, an education — I’m well-spoken and dress well. Most people can’t tell just by looking at me. My kid’s friends’ parents have no idea. We pass. Somehow we pass. So, we don’t hear as much judgment as that single mom on social benefits and her kids.

Except we do. Or I do at least. I try to protect the children from it. But at work, out in the community, on open line shows, and even from my own friends, I hear the words of hatred and disdain of the poor. I don’t know why they exist — it’s not something I’ve ever felt, even in my more “flush” times. Perhaps because unlike being gay or black or born with a disability, poverty is something we all fear.

It hangs over each of us. We’d prefer to think that the people who suffer from it — and the ensuing judgment — did something to deserve it. That way it won’t happen to us … if we’re careful.

Of course you wouldn’t believe a word of this if you saw me at Starbucks drinking a $4 latte.

And sometimes that is what I do. Sometimes I have $5 left to my name before I get paid again and I can’t buy groceries or pay bills or get the children anything and the anxiety and stress build. I can’t stop to meditate or do yoga or even have a hot bath because I’m working, thinking, pitching another article or social media client on the side, trying to figure out how to make more money so this doesn’t happen next month.

The fact is, if there’s $5 in my pocket, it makes no difference to my monthly budget. It won’t be there every month. It won’t pay my bills. But if I spend it on something for myself, a small luxury I usually deny, it may help me figure my way out of this mess by making me feel “normal” for a moment.

A paycheque, stretched just enough, can keep you out of disaster. But every month you live in the disaster zone. One wrong step, one unexpected expense, can spell catastrophe.

Except poor people aren’t allowed to buy a Starbucks coffee. At least, according to most in society they aren’t. They’re not allowed to get expensive haircuts or buy their kids electronic toys. And they’re definitely not allowed to smoke.

I don’t smoke now, but I have. At the worst points in my life financially, I have. Because the one thing that always comes with poverty is stress, anxiety and depression. And while you might judge your poor neighbour who finds the money to spend on smokes, what you might not realize is that cigarettes are cheaper than most prescription anxiety and depression medication when you don’t have insurance. They work quicker too.

They also act as stimulants, which when you can’t sleep from the anxiety or you’re scraping both ends of the candle with multiple jobs, can be a lifesaver. At $8 a pack, they’re a small luxury that does add up each week, but when you owe $500 on your light bill, that $8 makes such little difference in those calculations you always run in your head.

Plus, it costs more to quit. A person who can spare $8 a week would be hard pressed to spare $50 in one shot for a smoking cessation aid.

I’m not justifying or encouraging smoking, but I am discouraging the ongoing judgment — my latte, my neighbour’s cigarettes. Why do these things matter so much to observers?

Those observations that come with judgment never seem to catch the fact that we cut our own hair, buy all secondhand clothes, stretch juice and milk with water, stretch meat with beans, stretch another season out of our kids’ snowpants, stretch electric heat with sweaters and blankets. A paycheque, stretched just enough, can keep you out of disaster. But every month you live in the disaster zone. One wrong step, one unexpected expense, can spell catastrophe.

So when you find $5 in your pocket and you’ve survived another month, maybe you treat yourself. Or when you’re living on the edge and can barely drag yourself through, maybe you medicate yourself with nicotine. That lump that appears in your throat every time you spend money on anything other than food can be banished for a moment when you sip that foam or inhale that draw.

We, the poor, don’t get vacations, spa days, new clothes, steak dinners, nights out, or any other big luxuries. What we do get is moments stolen from anxiety and small dollars stolen from a tight budget so we can feel, for even just a second, like we can do this.

But we do it, always, with the eyes of judgment upon us. Knowing I have no savings for retirement, can’t take my kids to Disney, and will never buy a new vehicle or new furniture hurts a bit sometimes. But the real pinch of poverty comes from the comments I hear daily that ask why I have it so good when other people have to work for their luxuries. The shame is more stressful than the lacking.

You can comment on this column or access previous editions of Readily A Parent using the following short link:

Organizations: Starbucks

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • offdarock
    January 24, 2014 - 07:35

    wow! You should be proud of how you can support yourself in light of that mountain you climb every day. I can't say i know how you feel but you are right on every point, i for one will try to not judge by the exterior anymore, i do not have that right. I pray you find a way out and hopefully someone to share good experiences with, god bless you and your children

  • SilenceDoGood
    January 22, 2014 - 10:43

    No matter what one's income, unless they learn how to save they will end up right back where they started.

    • Should have stayed silent
      January 23, 2014 - 09:18

      Wow, you're out of touch. How do you save if you're living paycheque to paycheque. Even worse, what if your pay can't keep up with the basic necessities of life and you have to borrow from family and friends. "End up right back where you started", that's assumes you've made progress away from the start line. For some it's a major success just to reach the starting line.

  • Lynn
    January 22, 2014 - 07:08

    I grew up "poor" as you describe it. However my parents would have never described it that way because they had pride. This, despite the fact, that they could not afford heating oil when my mother had cancer and may lost their house and car had I not been still living at home and working almost full time. I have I have ZERO problem with people who struggle financially. Single parents, those who have lost jobs and have trouble bouncing back. Unfortunately life happens and sometimes it's not fair that people struggle when they've done nothing but work hard all their lives. The occasional Starbucks or scraping to buy a special video game for Christmas is nothing that should be frowned up. What I, and many people have problems with are those like a member of my husband's family who, when we bought our first home, got mad because she didn't understand why we got to have a house and demanded that we help her write a letter to NL Housing on her behalf. You see, she was on welfare and wanted a house. While I have no problem with minimum wage rising, I have a problem with high school graduates whining that it's not fair that they can't have what my family has, despite the 12 years of collective education my husband and I have. There is a difference between those two types of people.

    • george p b
      January 22, 2014 - 18:17

      Lynn: right on!!! as we used to say... well written.....