Last week I was speaking with DeeDee (not her real name) who had come in to pick up a food hamper. DeeDee does work, but it’s very difficult to raise a family on one income with a minimum wage job. She was saying that Tuesdays she eats at Soups On, every other Wednesday is Helping Hands and the alternate Wednesdays she has a co-worker who invites her over for supper, Thursdays she picks up food from Outreach and Fridays is Soups On again. Saturday to Monday she makes do with whatever is left in the fridge.
The simple fact is that the majority of the people who access our services survive this way. They are choosing between buying their groceries or paying their hydro bill each month.
The other day I was speaking with Nancy (also not her real name). She comes in every couple of weeks to file her report for EI/CERB online because she doesn’t have internet access at home. Both DeeDee and Nancy have been laid off of work due to covid and both of them said they make more on CERB than they did working. They have been putting that extra money towards paying off debts and are finally able to pay all of their bills and still have a some left over for the extra groceries they need to get through the week.
Neither of them is at ease though. Both of them realize they will owe money at tax time. It was quite an adjustment for them when they started collecting CERB. At first, to realize that they didn’t have to scrimp and count every dime, and that they could pay all of their bills as they were due was a huge mental 180 for them. When you see that big CERB payment in your bank account that easily doubled what you earned working, it’s hard to resist the urge to splurge. To realize that is what the government thinks the average person in Canada earns and that you are no where near that is heartbreaking. At first these ladies were scared to get comfortable with that money because they were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then they did get comfortable, but now as restrictions are lifting, they are preparing themselves to go back to scrimping because when they return to work they will also return to living on half of what they are getting from CERB.
When covid first started we thought the number of people coming to Outreach for help would go up, but in fact the opposite happened. Our numbers went down. We suspect this happened because the majority of our working poor were able to afford to buy their own groceries and clothing when they went on CERB. These are the people who work as cleaners in hotels, dishwashers in restaurants, EA’s, daycare helpers, casual workers, seasonal workers, and other various minimum wage jobs. These are responsible, contentious people who are normally struggling to make their way through life trying to raise a family on one income with a minimum wage job. As restrictions lift and our guests return to work our numbers are starting to rise again. The pandemic has been hard, but it did provide a moment of relief for some. Most of us are looking forward to the time when life can return back to normal, but for some their normal life is actually more of a struggle than their pandemic life. I only hope that when this is all over that our decision makers recognize stories like this and that it influences them to make decisions that will strengthen and uplift our social network.