Understanding the difference between “broke” and “poor” is the first step toward building a more equitable society
BY KATIE SMITH
I used to have money. Not a lot, but enough. I went straight from school into a full-time profession and did everything I was supposed to: I set up an emergency fund (six months of income put aside for a rainy day); I didn’t use a credit card; I paid into my company pension. I was able to donate monthly to charity and even had enough left over for a budget-friendly vacation at the end of the year. I had a lot to be thankful for, and that feeling of good fortune only grew when I became a mother.
But then, things started to go wrong. My youngest child was diagnosed with a developmental disability and was hospitalized. For me to continue working, he’d need special one-on-one child care. (I was quoted a rate of $41 an hour—more than I earned in my own job.) Thankfully, my employers allowed me flexible office time, so I could work from home part of the day and take my child to appointments and therapies, all of which cost money—money that was slowly slipping through my fingers.
I cut everything I could think of. I made everything from scratch, sold all we didn’t need, learned how to grow vegetables at a community garden in Toronto and preserved the food I grew for the winter months. We shopped secondhand. We cancelled cable. I sold my laptop and lived without a cell phone.
But then I got sick and had to have surgery. Even after I used up my 15 weeks of employment insurance, I still couldn’t return to work, as I was busy re-learning how to walk. When I was wheeled out of the operating room after a second surgery, my first thought was: How will I afford food this week?
Before long, I found myself sleeping on the couch so I could rent my bedroom to international students. I folded laundry to make a little cash for groceries, since I could do that sitting down. Yet I still couldn’t pay my bills. Nothing in my life before or since has humbled me quite like lining up for powdered milk, bread past its sell-by date and a small box of canned provisions.
There are many reasons your income can disappear overnight. You might get sick, as I did; your factory might close; your employer might implement mass layoffs. We live in a society where precarious seasonal and contract work without benefit plans is the norm, and genuine poverty is something that can happen to anyone.
What it feels like to be poor
There’s a big difference between being “broke” and being “poor.” poverty is the daily agony of not having enough money for groceries, or having to decide between buying food for your children and paying the rent. Real poverty is isolating. It’s living in fear of who will find out and how you will be judged. It’s worrying about whether social workers will take your kids, as I did for several weeks when things were at their worst. (There was a point in my shame about our poverty that even made me wonder if my children would be better off in a different family—thoughts that still haunt me.)
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I often hear my friends say, “I’m too poor,” when they’re frustrated about what they can’t have. Maybe it’s a trip they can’t afford, a reno they want to start right now, or a pretty pair of shoes they spotted in a shop window. I know they don’t mean to be hurtful. But when they talk about being “poor,” they’re not actually wondering where their next meal will come from, nor are they worried about the risk of homelessness, or about not being able to afford their child’s prescription medication.
Part of the problem is that instead of comparing ourselves to the Joneses like we used to, we now compare ourselves to those picture-perfect celebs and families we see on Instagram. We forget that if you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food in the fridge, the bills covered and a little extra in the bank—just in case—you’re better off than most of the world. And here’s where the words we use matter. If we self-identify as poor when we’re not, we risk losing the motivation to make a difference in the lives of those who really know what standing head down in line at a food bank feels like.
How to change conversations around poverty
I hope my children never flippantly use the phrase “I’m so poor,” just as I hope they will never experience true poverty again. There were days when I thought poverty would break us. It didn’t. But it did fundamentally change us. I hope it taught us to examine privilege and not to normalize excess.
As I write today, our life is more stable financially. I’ve found a way to share our small home with two international students, doubling our income. I’m now active in a swap group because it’s cheaper than buying things secondhand. I barter for what I can’t afford; music lessons, for instance, are “paid” for by clearing up the busy music studio. I also teach a couple of children in my neighbourhood after school and provide child care when medical appointments allow. I’ve become adept at counting (and re-counting) every cent, living off $20 per person a week for food, and finding as many free opportunities in my community as possible.
We’re not exactly wealthy, but we have a rich life that includes trips to the library and free rec swimming. We take advantage of free museum passes from the library. Sometimes I splurge and make homemade hot cocoa. When I reflect on our life now, I can see we are often broke, but not poor. And despite the fact that needing a new medication still forces me to cut corners, every week we give to the food bank—the nourishing foods that we needed at our lowest point and always hoped would be there. I’ve also joined an anti-poverty group to remind government representatives that poverty and equity matter.
We need privileged people to stop talking about being “poor” and to instead use their voices to speak up alongside those Canadians living in actual poverty. We need to question the stereotypes and judgments that allow Ontario-wide pharmacology and dental programs to remain low priorities. And we need to make noise around the dearth of affordable housing solutions in Toronto and the GTA. Let’s keep this conversation going until there are proper safety nets in place for when bad things happen and more people are pushed from broke to poor.
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