… The pitfalls of poverty

cbncompass.ca/Opinion/Columnists – Dara Squires opens up about the pitfalls of poverty
February 06, 2014.   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 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 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.

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