Columbia Daily Tribune, April 28, 2008: Working poor live on edge

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By ALFRED LUBRANO The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published Monday, April 28, 2008

PHILADELPHIA – Twenty-five dollars. That۪s all Sandra Walerski can spend in the Save-a-Lot for a week۪s worth of groceries.

Walerski, 47, who lives in Trainer, Pa., travels over the Pennsylvania line to shop in tax-free Delaware – part of a mighty fight to keep her family of six afloat as the hard-time economy grows wide and deep.

Food and gas prices soar while the dollar weakens and employers shed jobs. People such as Walerski are among the worst casualties – a rising number of working poor, generally defined as families with one or more workers making no more than twice the poverty level.

Being working poor is like living in another America, a lesser country where you go to a job, pay bills – do everything right – and still teeter perilously close to the edge.

“Working poor is what I am,” said Walerski, who possesses a broad, smiling face and a fighter۪s demeanor. “There are lots of us, and we look like everyone else.

Some weeks, Walerski spends as much as $45. But overall, her precious dollars seem to buy less while her four kids are eating more.

Her carpenter husband works diligently to pay the mortgage on the family۪s cramped house, down the street from a refinery. But there isn۪t enough.

Meanwhile, a growing tumor in Walerski۪s brain – which has yet to be biopsied – prevents her from being employed. She used to put in 50 hours a week, juggling a day-care job with telephone-survey work. She prays that the cancer that resulted in surgery to remove her breasts does not return.

As she places 3-year-old Gianna in the shopping cart, Walerski scans Save-a-Lot۪s specials with a practiced eye, using the calculus of a woman compelled to do without. She will hunt bargains in a store that has practically no familiar brand names and whose cashiers never ask, “Paper or plastic?” because no grocery bags are offered.

In her head whenever she shops, Walerski tries to balance limited income with endless debt.

Her husband, George, 32, grosses $28,800 annually. Marc, 20, a son who lives in the Trainer house, is a student at Delaware County Community College and kicks in a little; he pays his tuition and covers his mother۪s cell-phone bill. He works as an assistant manager at a local store.

The family often faces months in which they owe about $800 more than they take in, debt they carry around like lead luggage. They always pay the water bill; they۪re slowly paying off the $1,500 they owe the electric company.

They haven۪t bought heating oil in three years. This winter, three space heaters and lots of sweaters provided the only warmth. “You۪d be surprised to see how fast everyone moves in the house in the morning,” Walerski said.

And that $1,000-a-month mortgage monster keeps eating. All told, basic monthly expenses come to about $2,500. After taxes and support for a child in Arizona, her husband takes home about $430 a week or $1,720 a month, Walerski said.

This does not take into account the needs of a 26-year-old daughter who also lives in the house and whom Walerski describes as mentally disabled. Her son Kristopher, 8, has attention-deficit issues, among other difficulties.

Troubles seem to take up more space in the shopping cart than groceries. That۪s why, on occasion, Walerski goes to a food pantry to augment supplies.

Luckily for them, her husband has health insurance. Walerski is covered by a state plan for the physically disabled, and the younger kids are enrolled in the federal Children۪s Health Insurance Program.

In the supermarket۪s first aisle, she buzzes past the Fruity Diamonds cereal Gianna clamors for. Most parents learn to deflect the demands of howling children. For Walerski, a deaf ear is imperative for family survival.

“She wants everything,” Walerski said. “Oh, gosh, it۪s hard to tell her no, especially when she۪s so cute. But you have to.”

The working poor can afford little beyond the absolute basics. And often not even those.

Nationally, there are roughly 52 million working poor people, said David Elesh, a sociology professor at Temple University. “And it۪s getting worse each day because of this recession.”

Federal guidelines set the poverty level for a family of four at $21,200. To be considered working poor, such a family could make as much as $42,400 annually. At first blush, that might sound ample, but it turns out to be meager wages.

A working-poor woman shops differently from the way middle-class people do: no frills, no favorites.

“Not being able to afford roast beef is the worst thing for me,” Walerski said. She lingers at the meat counter, contemplating roasts wrapped in cellophane, shining under the bright fluorescents.

“Oh, I like roast beef,” she said quietly, pushing her cart toward the yogurt.

Six cartons of Coburn Farms yogurt go for $3 – protein. Then she grabs Bramley۪s strawberry preserves, $1.99 for two pounds, to sweeten peanut-butter sandwiches. “I was one of 13 kids in my family, raised in Upper Chichester by Depression-era parents,” Walerski said. “I know how to shop.”

She۪s so good at spotting value that she often calls friends from the supermarket to announce sales.

“Oh, here we go,” she chirps. Chef Boyardee – a brand she recognizes – makes a pizza kit for $2.59. It includes everything but cheese for two pizzas. “Pizza expands our family time when we make it every Friday night,” she said.

When the shopping is done, the total is $24.03, below the $25 limit. Walerski calls the day a success.

“Believe it or not, I think we۪re blessed,” she said. “Trust me, no one wants to be in our shoes, and lots of people are just a sick husband away from where we are. But we live part of the American dream: We have a house. So many other people have so much less.”

She pauses, then adds with a small smile, “Though let me tell you, we۪re still struggling. Every day.”

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