Three hundred and thirty-seven

I made it through Life at the Poverty Line!

My almost empty fridge. Can you make a meal out of condiments?

Well, I almost made it.  I have the rest of the day, but I’m on the home stretch.  And thank gosh it is over! Am I allowed to say that?  I am so grateful that I earn enough income (and live in Canada and have a wonderful support system) to allow me to live comfortably, in a safe environment, with fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy food and the occasional treat.  It’s been a tough month.  A journey of discovery for me and what it means to be brought down by something that you can’t control.  It’s been a time of evaluating my priorities, and a lot of time to myself to do this in.

It was interesting seeing people’s reaction to the money topic.  I don’t think I realized what a touchy subject it would be until I started writing about it.  Everyone has a different experience and relationship with money and I thank all those who shared their personal story with us.  It was also interesting taking the big leap from my low-income line of $21.40 to my basic needs line of $4 per day.  Then thinking about the extreme poverty line of US$1.25 per day.

Recap of the month

I began by defining different options for the poverty line, and which one I chose to use.  I argued why I chose what I did.  I talked about giving up a trip to the strippers, and what my background and relationship is with money.  I was very clear that “this month does not trivialize the lives and concerns of those people who live at the low income line (and I have a few friends who do).  This month is an attempt to understand what it’s like to not have money always there.”

Unexpected expenses came up, I had to pay for transit to give blood,  I struggled with eating healthy on a budget.   I talked about the international extreme poverty line of US $1.25 per day, the cost of poverty in Canada and the emotional and physical struggles poverty can cause.  I was hit emotionally by a few comments about how my $21.40 is too much and reacted accordingly, changing my tactic for the month.  I wrote about a different ways of looking at poverty – the Ontario Deprivation Index, international poverty lines, why defining a strict poverty line isn’t always good.

I examined documenting poverty (photographs and videos) and the debate of whether this is appropriate (with a great comment from Nikki about taking photos from someone who works with communities who are poor), sugar daddies, earning extra income, choosing to live in poverty/with no money,  ways to eat and live for free, living with debt.  I shared some personal stories, here and here, from people living in poverty. I revisited extreme couponing and talked about poverty in war times and poverty and obesity.  I tried to learn a lot and share different perspectives.

What did I learn?

How do you really simulate life at the poverty line, when you know all along that it will end in a month?  You can’t.  This month has no more taught me what it’s really like to be poor as it has made poverty enjoyable.  It has, however, given me a glimpse into a world where money is a constant stress and worry and where food and emergencies are the only necessities you can spend on in order to keep yourself afloat (and even then, you’re likely to continue the downward spiral).

I also learned to spend only what I need to, to look at the cost of things, and the live on a strict budget – all skills that are really important.  I learned to be more humble and put myself in other people’s shoes.  I learned to look outside of my world to see what I say comes across to other people.  I learned that poverty can affect physical health, but also mental health, which causes a downward spiral.  Being poor takes a toll on you as a person, and it’s extremely hard once you’re in it to get out of it.

Where do I go from here with Life at the Poverty Line?

I am donating a chunk of the money I worked for, but didn’t use this month to local shelters and food banks.  Any help to get people off the streets and well fed is important.  And I would like to give locally to support my community.  I will let you know once I have done a little more research into which charities I’ll be giving to.

I will also be more frugal.  I understand the value of money a bit more and how to stretch each dollar.  I will continue setting a budget of money I can spend and saving the rest for emergencies or a large expense.

Tomorrow I start A Photograph a Day.  I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do with this topic!

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Three hundred and thirty-six

Personal poverty stories

I’ve spent the day reading personal stories of poverty.  Maybe I should have done this at the beginning of this month, but I feel like I understand them more now.  Women whose fridges look like mine right now – a few condiments and not much else.  Men who have important things to say but are overlooked because they have lost their legs, can’t afford an apartment and therefore panhandle on the street to try and hopefully save enough to pay for rent.  Mothers who lose their babies because they water down the milk or formula because they can’t afford to feed their children properly.

The food coming from food banks is not very healthy.  Rent subsidies are not high enough to afford decent, safe housing.  Rent-to-own companies are preying on the poor, and cheating them out of money in the long term.  Trading sex for accommodation is not uncommon.  These are stories of depression, hopelessness, coping, and what to do to change this.

Here are some quotes from some of the stories I read and below, where to read the full reports/articles:

“The furniture and all that stuff is my past life… left over from the gravy days… a lot of women march into poverty with the goods they had before.”

“Never having enough money or enough of anything to meet basic needs has taken a toll on my health, on my self-esteem and on my idea of who I am and where I fit in this world. Living close to the edge of disaster on a daily basis eats away at your soul and destroys you from the inside out.”

“The two nights that it snowed she slept in a port-a-potty, to get out of the snow and wind. She joked and said it wasn’t bad because at least she had a bathroom but no light to read her book. She tried sitting at a bus stop under a streetlight to read but was told by police that she had to move because the bench wasn’t her living room.”

“She had always assumed that homeless people were on the street because they wanted to be there, that she never dreamed that it could happen to her or just how fast someone could find themselves homeless.”

“…an apartment where cleanliness means a sponge bath in the kitchen sink or a walk to the nearest pool house, and the toilet – shared with neighbors – is in a small closet in the hall.”

“In a typical day, he said, he would send out 10 resumes and make 10 calls.  But the months went by and nothing happened. ‘This is the first time I’m out of a job since I was 8, when I had a paper route,’ he said. ‘I kept thinking the economy would get better, and it just hasn’t.'”

“Circumstances put people where they are…You’re living in a cockroach-infested, one-room place that is not as big as half of the room we are sitting in now, about the size of a jail cell.  And you are supposed to live twelve months of the year like this? And not go out and beat each other up? And rob each other? And go and steal, and do this and do that? Because what else have you got, what else have you got to lose?”

“It is not our fault. We don’t want to be doing this. We didn’t choose this. We didn’t say OK I’m going to be homeless today. And have nothing to eat and no place to go.”

Read more at:

Women’s Perspective on Poverty: photos and stories by women on low-income in Calgary, http://www.ucalgary.ca/gender/WAFI%20Report2.pdf, (Quotes 1-4)

Poverty Stories.  A blog by David Schwab Abel, reporter for the Boston Globe and adjunct professor of journalism at Boston University and Emerson College. http://davidabel3.blogspot.com/ (Quotes 5-6)

Voices: Women, Poverty and Homelessness in Canada.  Rusty Neal.  Report of the National Poverty Association, May 2004. http://intraspec.ca/WomenPovertyAndHomelessnessInCanada.pdf (Quotes 7-8)

Three hundred and thirty five

I was flipping through the Toronto Life January 2012 edition, in their “Where to get good stuff cheap” section when I came across this sentence: “On sale for $495, it’s as cheap as it is versatile”.  And they are writing about a DRESS!  A cotton, plaid, shirt-dress – nothing fancy.  The more I look through the section, the more I see why Torontonians are constantly lured into spending money.  Nothing in the “good stuff cheap” section is all that cheap.  I guess they’re trying to go for how to get expensive items at a discount.  But I’m not sure “cheap” is the right word for a $495 cotton dress!

Prices stand out to me since living on $4 a day.  I never really noticed how expensive things are.  It’s hard to buy milk and cereal for under $4 (or almond milk, as I’m still on the no dairy thing from vegan month).  And I’m definitely not buying any new clothes or anything that isn’t completely mandatory.  It’s interesting how not having those “rewards” (like buying a new sweater, or treating yourself to a chocolate bar) makes you change your reward system and value different things.

Parkdale

We (as in you, the readers, and I) were talking about really understanding what it’s like to live in poverty in Canada, and how I need to hit the streets to see what life at the poverty line is really like.  I only need to walk outside my door to see this.  I live in Parkdale – a mix of low-income housing, lots of new immigrants, artists, and gentrified areas.  It is a diverse section of Toronto with lots of character.  There are “hipster” bars beside run-down cafes and food banks.  Walking up Jameson Avenue, lined with tall, low-rent apartment buildings, you run into all sorts of different people.  There are hard-working newly immigrated families.  Students goof around, old men mumble to themselves, and drug addicts get high or come down.  Teenage girls giggle and their mothers or fathers push carts of groceries home from the discount store.  There are people of all colours.  This is a working class neighbourhood, with some poorer than others.

In the Parkdale 2011 Report Card on Health, Housing and Food Security (which Parkdale failed most categories),  The Parkdale Community Health Centre explains: “57% of our clients report income under $20,000 and more than 30% of our clients live with mental health issues.”  I love Parkdale, but I watch some of the people here struggle – sometimes dealing with mental illness, sometimes dealing with money at the bank, sometimes just dealing with life at the coffee shop.  I wonder what they are thinking as they stare out of the window over their coffee for hours.

Here are some residents of Parkdale who explain what poverty is to them (from The Toronto Star):

Three hundred and thirty-four

Motivation

There have been times this year when I’ve really not wanted to write.  When I’d rather just relax and do something completely mindless.  When I procrastinate writing until 10pm, even though I have had the blank page in front of me all evening since I arrived home from work.  When the energy just doesn’t seem to exist to do something productive.  When a glass of wine and sleep seem like the only course of action.

These times are intensified when I don’t have plans that need to be accomplished that day.  I always get more done when I have more to do.  It’s motivation and deadline-driven.  When I have to be out of the house at a certain time, I will get everything I want to get done accomplished before I leave.

But what happens when I feel overwhelmed because I have no money to spend, no place to be and stressed because the “to be paid” stack of bills is getting bigger and bigger?  Combine that with a lack of exercise, and bad processed fast food common in low-income households, it can create a downward spiral difficult to get out of.

Today is a “I don’t want to write” day for me.  Although I do not live in extreme poverty, I can see the beginnings of the downward spiral.  My “I don’t want to do anything” days are becoming more frequent, and that scares me.  All caused by stress and money.

A little motivation is sometimes what I need to kick start my life and pull me out of my funk.  So here’s a video from One.org of how anti-poverty activists are really making a difference:

And check out their Living Proof website where they show the good news about what is happening with extreme poverty around the world.  Here’s an inspiring video of a woman who is now growing her own crops to provide for herself:

It’s always great to hear some good news.  And it’s definitely helping my mood, putting things into perspective, and motivating me to keep going.

Three hundred and thirty-three

Poverty and Obesity

In impoverished communities (in developed countries) there is frequently less access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and safe recreation areas for children to play in, and larger number of fast food restaurants.  This combination, combined with lower income and therefore lower food budgets, creates a situation where obesity rates in adults and sadly children can be very high.

Childhood obesity has risen dramatically in North America in the last generation.  Overweight children can lead to adult obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and fractures related to obesity – all of which result in higher costs for medical attention (for the individual/family and the government).  According to Ana Garcia from The New York Academy of Medicine, “one in three New York children is obese or overweight and prone to developing chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As these children grow up, New York State will spend an estimated $136.3 billion from 2011 to 2020 to treat diseases whose underlying cause is obesity.” (From a letter in The New York Times)  That’s a lot of overweight children.

But what can be done?  Brett Taylor on the CBC News Health website suggests the cost of exercise (organized sports, etc) for children is too high in Canada for low-income families to afford.  That the cost of a television is cheaper than a year of hockey or swimming lessons.  He suggests building more government-funded recreational facilities.  A lot of comments to the article say kids used to play outside and ride their bike, so why do they need money to do this.  I’m in two minds about this.  I totally agree that being active can be free or cheap and that kids need to spend more time running around and less time playing video games.  Unfortunately a lot of low-income neighbourhoods are not safe to play on the streets in.  I live in Parkdale, and road hockey in the middle of Jameson Avenue is impossible.  There was also a shooting on that street a few months ago.  Not to say kids should be kept inside, but gone are the days that you can just let your kids run free around the house/apartment and come back five hours later (or at least not in the city – this could still happen in smaller communities).

Then there’s the debate between whether fast food or home-cooked food is cheaper.  The more I read, the more I see all different perspectives from very passionate people.  There are those that say that fresh healthy food is cheaper because you can stretch it a long way (ie. make large batches or soup or chili, or use a big bag of lentils for numerous dishes).  Then there are those that argue that cheap food is fatty and therefore fills you up more.  Zoe Williams from The Guardian argues that on a penny-per-calorie basis, fast food is simply cheaper:

I think there’s an element of projection here, where people who can afford to eat well – and do – still secretly yearn for a Big Mac, and it’s their own yearning rather than political deliberation that makes them think they’re looking at a lack of willpower from the McDonald’s classes. But this has nothing to do with willpower.

I’m not sure I agree with this, although I do enjoy the way she put that.  I worry all the time that I project things on other people because of my background.  I guess we all do to an extent.  I don’t think you could buy a meal for a family of four at McDonald’s for less than $20.  I just went to No Frills the other day, spent $20 on veggies, fruit, and whole grains and with a little creativity and cooking, I have healthy food for myself for a week (which, even if I had a family of four, means I’ve spent way less on many meals of  healthy food than the one meal of crap).

During my vegan month I realized just how much our diet affects our moods, emotions, our body functions, what our skin looks like.  Eating crappy food causes you to be slower, less motivated, feel worse about yourself.  It’s a vicious cycle.  Of course, if you are working two jobs in order to pay the bills, it’s going to be hard to spend a lot of time cooking healthy meals.  But making a big soup only takes thirty minutes and not very much effort.  It can be done.

My friend Jenn, when suggesting healthy living as a topic for my last month, told me that there is a small town in the States that is initiating a by-law saying that no more fast food restaurants can build in their town because the obesity and poverty rates are so high that people can’t make appropriate choices on their own.  This is scary.

I don’t know what the answer is, but the link between obesity and poverty is a real thing.  If you’re already depressed from not having money, eating an unhealthy diet of sugary processed foods is not going to help you get motivated.  But if your depressed, you want easy, cheap, filling, comfort food.  And then what habits are you teaching your children?  It really is a vicious cycle.