As the cost of living continues to climb, wage-earners struggle to keep up, many of them unable to find their footing on the cliffside of the American economy.
Some days, that’s how Joyce feels: like she’s standing at the bottom of a mountain, a boulder by her side waiting to be rolled upwards. If grit and determination alone were enough to keep it moving, she’d be at the top by now. Instead, she’s here, feeling the force of gravity and wondering how she’ll ever make progress.
“I was working at the YMCA,” Joyce said when we spoke to her at a food distribution event. She quit after her third child was born. Many new mothers stop working to recover, or to bond with their baby, but for Joyce it was a choice made out of necessity. Childcare cost more than her job brought in. Paradoxically, staying employed would have cost her money.
Joyce’s two older sons are in school. And once the baby, Jay, is old enough to attend, “I’m going right back to work,” Joyce emphasized.
In the meantime, the family relies on father and husband Laine as sole breadwinner. He’s a plumber by trade, but work (and pay) only happens via commission. If no one needs services – or, more likely, if other families in Laine’s area are also cutting back their spending to save money for food – he can go weeks without a real paycheck.
Joyce held off on visiting a food pantry for as long as she could. She’s received support in the form of Christmas gifts and school supplies for her kids from her local YMCA, but there’s something about accepting food that feels different. She had to use the pantry once before, during the height of the COVID pandemic. This time, circumstances again forced her hand.
“Last month we were really behind on rent,” Joyce explained. “We were having big trouble with that, but the church helped us out. We didn’t have any food in the house, but luckily, I got an email to come here (to this Feed the Children event).”
Every item in the box of food and essentials Joyce held that day factored into her calculations: How many lunches can she make for her two older sons? How long can the family make one box of baby wipes last? How much money can be diverted away from groceries to other bills?
And slowly, so slowly, the boulder is moving. Joyce has no way to know how far she’ll make it this time before the backslide starts, but does it matter? She can’t stop.
“Everything is so expensive,” she said. “Next month’s going to be a big expense too.”
Meanwhile, the top of the mountain just seems to get further and further out of reach. Joyce pointed to one of the items in her box: “This used to just be two dollars at the grocery store; now it’s five.”
Joyce tries to stay positive, but the constant stress of managing a household on an uncertain budget, as prices skyrocket, is wearing on her. Visiting this food distribution event is another reminder that despite all her and Laine’s hard work, it’s not enough. The boulder is getting harder to push.
Baby Jay accompanied Joyce to the event – in fact, he had to. If Joyce had access to safe and affordable childcare, Jay would be there and she would be at work, but there he sat in his car seat, happily clutching a new toy. Not every event like this has items just for kids, but this one did.
For him, the afternoon was a treat: more one-on-one time with Mama, a car ride, a new toy he can’t wait to show his brothers. Not yet one year old, Jay has never realized that food is something he needs to worry about. He’s never looked over an electric bill, let alone stared at one long enough that his eyes hurt and wondered how it would ever be paid.
In Jay’s world, there is enough. But unless something changes, he may come to realize that word is prefaced by “barely.”
It might not take long. A 2011 survey revealed that, by elementary school, children were already painfully aware of their families’ struggles. And not just that: many of the children reported that they had made the decision (without their parents’ knowledge or consent) to undereat, in hopes of easing the burden.
This doesn’t have to be Jay’s fate. Your donations make a difference for families like Joyce’s and children like Jay. The boulder of poverty is giant but it can be moved – and, one day, removed – if we act together.