Deborah (all the names of those interviewed for this article have been changed) is twenty-something, smart, articulate, bi-lingual single mother of four. After losing a well paying job eight months ago, she took a warehouse position at minimum wage, $7.25 an hour in New Jersey, and moved her family into a shelter.
She's hoping her education and language skills will mean a quick promotion and higher wages. Though she pays little in rent, she tells me that after her car expense, diapers and clothes, there's no much left for food. A quick calculation reveals her car expenses alone will eat up nearly a third of her $14,790 annual income.
If you can't quite relate to a single mother of four, who recently lost a significant amount of income, then consider Joan.
Joan tells me over and over that hers is a good story that people need to hear. Unfortunately, for her and her family she is right.
Before moving to Shamong, NJ, Joan, her husband and four children, lived a well above average middle class life in a suburban Toledo, OH. They owned a single family home. She ran a home day care to supplement her husband's $80,000 plus income. He worked as a pipeline technician, a career he built over 26 years, lost 14 months ago and has not been able to reclaim. Two years ago he found work in New Jersey through relatives and the family moved.
Food Line for the Holidays - Browns Mills, NJ by Chaz Valenza
Moving meant Joan's day care income was gone. It also meant a cut in her husband's salary to $40,000, and an increase in rent from $875 monthly mortgage payment, which included principle, interest, taxes and insurance, to a trailer park rent of $1,125.
Doing some quick math for Joan's situation reveals how the Great Recession has decimated middle class America: after taxes $40,000 is about $30,000 take home in New Jersey. Less $5,000 for carfare to get to work. Less $13,500 for rent. Utilities and phone, let's say $2,400; way too low, right? That leaves $14,100 for food, insurance, diapers, laundry, clothes and every other vagary life throws at a family of six. Since a decent family health care insurance is at least $9,000 per year, I'll bet they aren't making what's left of the COBRA payments.
Think you can feed yourself for $5 a day? What would you buy? What would you forego? Fast food will eat up that whole amount in a single meal. If Joan spends every cent of her family's $14,100 of "discretionary" money on food she would have a $6.53 per person per day food budget.
Joan wasn't embarrassed to talk about her situation with me. For whatever reason, she wanted people to know her story. But she was the exception. There were many others seeking a week's worth of food who didn't want to be noticed. They were still well shod. One middle aged gentleman, escorting his wife, was twitching. He didn't care to share his story.
Why You Will Choose to Be Hungry
Setting priorities when your budget gets squeezed is exactly why food is going to come last and why you're going to be left with little or nothing to feed your face and the hungry faces of those you love.
In a strange subversion of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, when things get tough in our modern world, you will put food last. "There are a couple of reasons," explains Traore. "First impulse is we don't want other folks to know we're struggling. So, Americans have a tendency to decide to pay for the visible expenses first."
If you think about it, it's pride, practicality and the unwillingness to give up hope too soon. Mix it all together and before you know it, you're hungry.
You may put off buying new clothes, or if interviewing for a job is a must, you won't.