In the last year or two I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of the working poor. I thought that when we were students, that we were poor. While our income well below the ‘poverty line’ we never felt poor. We shopped for clothes and furniture at thrift stores and garage sales. We filled our grocery cart with products in vibrant yellow boxes, and we certainly weren’t out buying extras, but we didn’t feel poor. We never had bill collectors call us, or had utilities cut off because we were behind in our payments. We never asked our parents for help to cover our day to day expenses, although being parents, they would often send us home with generous care packages when we went to visit.
Our children arrived while we were juggling university and jobs. The magazine the hospital gave me said that it cost $3500 to get everything a new baby needs. Through thrift stores and sewing myself, our expenditure for clothes, bedding and furniture was $143. My husband worked full time, I did full time child-care, and we both studied part time. When I was ready to start teacher training and working full time hours, he was able to work nights, so we never had to worry about child care help.
By the time we hit 30 we both had respectable, well paying jobs, had purchased and sold 2 houses building up to a beautiful acreage dream home. Our hard work had paid off. There were no vacations in exotic places. There were no fancy extras, but there was never any lack either.
We might have thought that our deligence and perseverence was bound to ensure we achieved all our dreams within the specified time lines we’d determined. We followed the rules and probably thought we deserved our success.
Fact is, we were lucky.
If any of the family had had a serious illness, job loss, or other catastrophe, we would have lost our perfect little life in an instant. We lived in a fragile soap bubble, and I had no idea just how fragile it was, or just how blessed we were.
Over the last few years I’ve met people who are just as talented, academically trained, or career focused as we were. Yet these brilliant people, through no fault of their own, are stuck in drastic financial straits. I’m not talking about addicted homeless people here. I am talking about decent, hardworking individuals who are not extravagent or wasteful. People who struggle desperately to make it month by month because of health issues and circumstances beyond their control.
Consider this: if you are too ill to work, how do you pay the bills if you don’t have sick benefits at your job? What if you contract cancer? or a severe mental illness? suffer a chronic health condition? or someone else in your household does? What happens if the government does not acknowledge your condition?
Here’s another situation: What happens if you miss a monthly payment with ICBC? Well, you must not only pay the missed payment plus a penalty, but you lose the opportunity to pay on monthly installments. How do you afford to pay a year’s insurance up front when you can’t manage a month’s payment? You don’t. You lose your ability to drive. Your vehicle becomes lawn ornament. If you don’t live in a city, how do you get around without a car? You cycle, walk or take transit and have to walk to the nearest stop. What if you’re too ill to walk or cycle, because you have cancer? or an injury? What if you need to cart water bottles?
What happens when you’re working full time, but you can’t manage your rent and utilities, even when they’re in the cheapest possible accommodations?
I hear the problems. I listen to the frustration. I sense the hopelessness. I wonder. Why does this happen? What social safety net has a gigantic hole in it, that this can happen? It is easy to see how families are torn apart by poverty. They can’t afford the services that are supposed to help them. Why are we failing our poor? What should be happening so there is not this desperation? What choices can we make in a democratic society to ensure that everyone can eat, have shelter, and can get to their jobs? We offer micro-credit to people in third world countries, is there anything like that here?
I don’t have a solution, but I want one.