The pinch of poverty

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - Dara Squires

I don’t think it’s too hard for most peo­ple, es­pe­cially here in this prov­ince, to imag­ine what it’s like to not have enough money some­times. Any­one who lived through stretch­ing out stu­dent loans and mea­gre part­time 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 child­care 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.

Be­ing judged

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 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. 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.

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.

A small lux­ury

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.

Ex­cept poor peo­ple aren’t al­lowed to buy Star­bucks. 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?

Life on the edge

Those ob­ser­va­tions that come with judg­ment never seem to catch the fact that we cut our own hair, buy all sec­ond-hand 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 ex­pense 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.

— Dara Squires is a free­lance writer and mother of three. You can con­tact her on face­book at www.face­book.com/read­ilya­parent

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