By Leah Richard
I was laid off from a $70,000 a year job a few years ago and embarked on a journey that taught me alarming lessons about what people have to live through every day. Canned food is crap that will raise your blood pressure, the stress of not being able to pay your bills will make you need medication, and your health is a commodity you can no longer afford.
Being broke for the first time in my life was an eye-opening experience. Now, I should clarify, I had a respectable amount of money saved for emergencies, my house was paid off, and I had an incredible support system of family and friends. I was not really one of the true working poor; while I was struggling for the first time since becoming a journalist 13 years prior, I was never in danger of being homeless or truly indigent. But the experience has given me some perspective.
Like many laid-off people across the country, I was tied to my town by family, a home, and not having the money to relocate to parts of the country that were a bit more lucrative.
Commutes Cost Money
My entire identity had been tied up in my job, that had taken me across the country, and opened me up to new people and possibilities. But the news industry was– and still is struggling—I knew I couldn’t go back and expect to retire a journalist. What the hell was I going to do? Learn how to live with less, less money, less health insurance, less freedom, less of doing what I love BUT more of the people I love. See, I didn’t want to move AGAIN. I had set down roots in my hometown, bought a house, and wanted to start a family. Moving would cost money that I did not have.
I live in a town of 5,000 with a commute of 45 minutes, one way, to the nearest city. It costs money to commute, about $7,000 a year for me—so unless a job was paying $35,000 or above, the commute was going to cost major money. And for most poor people that’s the case, jobs closer to home may not pay well, but heading to work an hour away pays EVEN LESS in the long run.
So that whole “just get any job” mentality doesn’t work if the only job available is an hour or more away (in some areas). Working a job far away could actually cost your family more money in gas, bus fare, and daycare. Not to mention the loss of sleep, time spent with family and the psychological impact of that on you and your children. Plus, more time spent commutating is less time you spend actually earning income.
I Paid More Taxes
Yep. This one took me by surprise. I took two assistant jobs in my parish (in Louisiana we don’t do counties) making less than $25,000 a year total. I took these jobs for a variety of reasons but the number one was because I was going through foster parenting classes and needed the freedom of somewhat creating my own hours. I was going to be a single foster parent and I had to make accommodations. I still had choices because my former career allowed me to buy a house outright (I had no mortgage) and I had savings. The vast majority of the working poor do not have the same choices I had. Even making least amount of money I had ever made in my working life, I was still incredibly lucky.
I figured the jobs would pay the bills, let me head to class, and– at the very least– relieve my tax burden. Nope. I paid over 10% of my income in taxes that year; more of a percentage than I had paid making much more money. I’m now a freelance writer making a bit more money annually—but the taxes still hit me harder than when I was making $70k a year.
Losing $2,500 of that $25K was a massive blow. Plus, I was considered a contract employee so my taxes were not taken out of my check, I had to set them aside. Do you know how hard it is to set aside $200 every month when you’re only bringing home $2000ish?
It’s painful and I didn’t manage to do it on a regular basis. When tax season came I had to use savings to pay up—a luxury many of the true working poor do not have. That’s why so many fall prey to scams and payday loans just to make ends meet.
Eating Healthy is EXPENSIVE
I’m overweight. I always have been, however, I try to eat healthier now, as an example for my kids and hopefully to ensure that I am with them as long as possible. Guess what the most expensive items at the grocery store are—the stuff that literally grows on trees!
Fruits and vegetables are some of the most sought-after items in my house. Our Women’s Infants and Children’s (WIC) vouchers only give us $8 to spend towards healthy fruits and veggies. Know what that buys you? Some bananas, a small cabbage, and maybe some carrots. Maybe.
Forget about organic anything and canned food quickly become your cheapest option. BUT canned food is loaded with sodium! And when you don’t have health insurance you start to notice which items tend to make you less healthy and more likely to have to plop down $100 to see a doctor.
My then foster kids (now adopted) grew a garden and started to barter with people that had the fresh goodies we needed to stay healthy. It’s the only way to keep from eating absolute crap.
So, when you see people in line at the grocery store buying mac and cheese over apples, there is a reason for that. Mac and cheese fills you up and costs a hell of a lot less than just ONE apple.
Staying Healthy Becomes a Nightmare
For years I had reported on the ups and downs of our healthcare system—all while being comfortably insured by my employer. I managed to pay for healthcare insurance on my own for one year after the lay-off. And that was a good call on my part because for the first and only time in 36 years I needed emergency surgery.
I had the health insurance to cover the bulk, but it had a huge deductible, as most affordable plans do, and I was still on the hook for thousands of dollars. Plus, I missed two weeks of work. My gallbladder ended up costing me $11,000 in services and lost wages. Take a wild guess where most of my savings went that year?!
Now, I can no longer afford healthcare. I fall in that gap of making too much to get an ACA stipend and not making enough to pay $300 a month for healthcare. Thankfully, my kids are covered by Medicaid because of their foster care and adoption situation, but I live in constant fear that the state runs out of funding and they will lose coverage too.
Stress has also eaten away at my health and savings. My back goes out more because I am tenser, I’m tenser because I worry, I worry because I am just a client loss or two away from being in a real monetary pickle. Being broke puts your body in an unhealthy cycle both mentally and physically—and you can’t afford to treat every ache and pain. Plus, there are no longer any regular check-ups and as I creep closer to 40, it’s a real concern.
But Wait, There’s More
When you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck is easy to think that woman living on welfare should just “work more.” But being poor adds up to a lot of expensive considerations. Things that I haven’t had to contend with because I have a degree and skills that are still, somewhat, in demand.
I haven’t had the threat of homelessness, the deadbeat employers, the endless cycle of debt and high-interest loans that are the only way working poor can pay bills and eat. Plus, when you have to work 3 part-time jobs to put food on the table who is raising your kids? Daycare. Now, you have a sky-high daycare bill that eats up most of your check — a check you made with long hours away from your kids.
The real working poor have more working against them than a laid-off journalist turned single mom/writer can understand. But that doesn’t keep me from trying.