Dara Squires opens up about the pitfalls of poverty

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Dara Squires
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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.

Dara Squires

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. You can contact her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/readilyaparent

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Recent comments

  • Chris M
    February 19, 2014 - 08:50

    http://survialofthepoorest.blogspot.ca/ this is how I tried to overcome the frustration and stress of being without. Feel free to take a look, in my earliest blogs I talked about and showed the realities of living like this. She is right I get so fed up with the judgements, does anyone know how it feels for a kid even to be told "no I can't send you on that field trip" it's too expensive. Recently I had to try to replace my son's shoes, he ended up shoveling snow to save for a pair. They probably won't last long, cheap ones never do, but they will get him through till we can afford another pair.

  • Timothy
    February 19, 2014 - 03:48

    Rock bottom is different for everyone. So is being poor. I see all these people in the comments missing the point. As long as we have a society looking at poverty as something we have done to ourselves we will never see the change we so desire. I dream of a day where we can all live equally and no one goes without. It sickens me to see the people below still passing judgement. You obviously have no idea what its like to feel the stigma and shame of being poor. As my father used to say think before you speak so please take his advice. Think before you go passing blame and hate on those who don't deserve it.

  • Timothy
    February 19, 2014 - 03:46

    Rock bottom is different for everyone. So is being poor. I see all these people in the comments missing the point. As long as we have a society looking at poverty as something we have done to ourselves we will never see the change we so desire. I dream of a day where we can all live equally and no one goes without. It sickens me to see the people below still passing judgement. You obviously have no idea what its like to feel the stigma and shame of being poor. As my father used to say think before you speak so please take his advice. Think before you go passing blame and hate on those who don't deserve it.

  • Sylvia J.
    February 14, 2014 - 16:13

    I think Dara Squires hit the nail on the head in having a comprehensive understanding of what not only what it is like to be poor, but society's attitude toward the poor, regardless of the "why" they are or if they are working, on Assistance or a student.

  • rob
    February 10, 2014 - 07:01

    Great article!

  • Wendy
    February 09, 2014 - 12:46

    Wake up everyone, I believe there's no such thing as a distinction between poor and working poor anymore. If you are poor, you are poor. It's a myth told to us to justify society's class structure. I've been poor. I was on welfare, I had no choice. Mother of three, working a so called part-time job but working full time hours with no benefits. And going months not receiving benefits because I made too much money.(what a joke). What someone does with the few measly dollars they have in their hand( because they don't have it long enough to put in a purse or bank account) is none of our business. It's none of our business if he or she buys smokes or coffee to make them feel better. It's none of our business if they buy a case of beer or get a tattoo or go to McDonalds! My mother could teach bankers how to manage money and she was poor. But you never heard her talk down about anyone, ever. She always said;"But for the grace of God, there go us". I'm lucky, I have a good job and a good life. But I have no illusions, I'm maybe one or two pay cheques or a government's budget plan away from being back on "the cheque"! Empathy and a hand up,everyone!

  • Linda
    February 09, 2014 - 09:29

    Where else can you have everything paid for and take vacation when ever you wanted, Or have credits cards and buy a new car ever few years. But only on welfare, Something need to be done, concerning people on welfare, who have more then someone working.

    • Sylvia J.
      February 14, 2014 - 16:04

      Take a vacation? To where? The backyard? If you even have one of those? Buy a new car? I don't know anyone on Social Assistance who has bought a new car. I used my bicycle or the shoelace express. Credit cards? Who gives them to people on Social Services? Enlighten me. However, I will add that people working for only minimum wage are not better off.

  • Michael
    February 08, 2014 - 23:19

    First let me begin by saying this is an excellent, well written news story and it's good that The Aurora paper has shined a light on poverty as sadly too many people look the other way not understanding it could happen to anyone often times for reasons you have no control over. With political correctness in the world we live in today too many want to take God out of everything and forget what God is all about which is love. In otherwords as Canadians when a Canadian sees other Canadians hurting that are poor you shouldn't look down on those people but do what you can to help that person or lead that person to someone that can help if you're unable to. The federal government also isn't doing enough to help fight poverty, there are too many Canadians that can't afford to buy health food and too many homeless. Every Province in the entire country needs more help in the fight against poverty. When one is hurting everyone should be looking out for one another, that's part of being Canadian. The rest of the world sees Canada as a kind, loving country full of compassion, sometimes I think that's something everyone needs to be reminded of because nobody should be looking down or passing judgement on someone just because they are poor. I hope that Canada isn't going to follow down the path of certain other countries where income inequality is getting worse and worse meaning the gap between middle income, the poor get squeezed and only the wealthy keep getting richer. No matter what you believe in or don't believe in just think of what a nicer place the world would be if all of us tried our best to love our neighbour as ourselves.

  • Sheila
    February 07, 2014 - 13:11

    It is not the working poor that should not treat themselves to Starbucks they have earned their money. I do have a problem with people on welfare buying smokes, buying coffee instead of brewing it, getting tattoos and having their child in daycare on the taxpayer time so the child can learn to socialize because that is not money you earned it is money given to you by people that are the working poor. We have so many families that have used welfare for generations are a family business that I say set a limit for the number of years a healthy person can receive benefits and do not add additional monies for additional children born after benefits commence. When you do not work what else would take up your time but cooking your own meals, caring /playing with your children and looking for a way to become self supporting so you have the right to waste your earned money but I am tired of you wasting mine. Dara enjoy your hard earned Starbucks brew!!!!

    • Kelly
      February 08, 2014 - 08:10

      I think this article is about judging and the shaming of people with less resources and not seeing them as equally valuable. Maybe as a society we need to assess why we have a need for welfare when so many have the ability to live luxury. People living in poverty are the scapegoats for our capitalist society that honors the almighty dollar as the test of worth. Never judge a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

  • Sheila
    February 07, 2014 - 13:09

    It is not the working poor that should not treat themselves to Starbucks they have earned their money. I do have a problem with people on welfare buying smokes, buying coffee instead of brewing it, getting tattoos and having their child in daycare on the taxpayer time so the child can learn to socialize because that is not money you earned it is money given to you by people that are the working poor. We have so many families that have used welfare for generations are a family business that I say set a limit for the number of years a healthy person can receive benefits and do not add additional monies for additional children born after benefits commence. When you do not work what else would take up your time but cooking your own meals, caring /playing with your children and looking for a way to become self supporting so you have the right to waste your earned money but I am tired of you wasting mine. Dara enjoy your hard earned Starbucks brew!!!!

    • Sylvia J.
      February 14, 2014 - 16:09

      You have no right to tell those on Social Assistance what they spend their money on. If they choose to buy liquor, cigarettes or get tattoos then they go without in other areas even more than if they didn't do that. Who said people on Assistance don't cook their own meals, care and play with their children and look for ways to be self-supporting. Yes, they're are always those that will abuse any system, but please, try to look past that at those that truly do need it.

  • Sarah Burton
    February 06, 2014 - 19:42

    Well said.

  • Renee Gartshore
    February 06, 2014 - 18:54

    Very well said..Ive been there and still are there more than ppl know....I admire your strength ..NEVER GIVE UP THE DREAM...KEEP WISHING ..CAUSE WISHES DO COME TRUE!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Katie
    February 06, 2014 - 17:38

    I understand completely. I'm not a mother, but I'm a student. As of now, I get $4500 a semester for student loans-- after tuition, books, rent and utilities for a shoddy apartment in a house shared with 5 other people, I'm left with less than 200 a month for food, gas, and a landline phone. My program demands a 4 month, unpaid internship, while completing courses online, so, no room for work. However, if I ration out a measly $5 dollars for a Starbucks coffee twice a month, or $10 for a bottle of wine, then I am a bad person. If I talk about the farce that is the Canadian student loan system or how unpaid internships are a loophole for slave labour, I get the inevitable: "Students are supposed to be poor". Thanks, don't worry, I am. These people seem to forget the fact that I haven't bought a new coat in 5 years, that I cut my own hair, I have a car that's falling apart to get me to and from my internship (a distance too far to walk), that I had to have two teeth removed because I couldn't afford a root canal, that I couldn't buy a single Christmas gift this year, that I'm going without medications that I need because I don't have the money to buy them. When I ask for a solution, I get the: "If you can't afford it, stop going to school and work" answer that neglects the fact that I've now got $20,000 worth of debt and the qualifications to get a $12 an hour job. There's no room in this society for people who don't have mommies and daddies to help them.

  • Elizabeth
    February 06, 2014 - 14:49

    So articulate and well written! It can happen to anyone but many people don't realize that if it has not happened to them. About the Starbucks coffee, George Orwell wrote something similar a long time ago: "the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. …When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’." So enjoy your coffee, and I wish you great success with your writing!

  • Mitch
    February 06, 2014 - 14:18

    I too find myself in these situations every two weeks. I have a great job but times are tough. I barely make it from cheque to cheque and hardly ever have any extra just to spend for fun. There are so many people like it out there who pretend everything is fine. Most people don't realize they are only one missed cheque away from bankruptcy. Thanks for the great article.

  • Michelle
    February 06, 2014 - 12:05

    Fantastic article. I have been in your shoes more times than I can count...working poor. I have no judgement against anyone. How do I know whats going on in someone elses life? Currently we are fine financially, but it could change at a moments notice. I hear the judgements too. Its shameful to say the least. Its hard to hold your head high when you look up and see those faces of ridicule, but at the end of the day they mean nothing. Enjoy your moments of peace