Philadelphia Inquirer, April 8, 2008: Working poor struggle to get by

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By Alfred Lubrano

Inquirer Staff Writer

Twenty-five dollars. That’s all Sandra Walerski can spend in the Claymont Save-a-Lot today for a week’s worth of groceries.

Walerski, 47, who lives in Trainer, Delaware County, 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 like Walerski are among the worst casualties – a rising number of working poor in the region, 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,” says Walerski, who possesses a broad, smiling face and a fighter’s 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 family’s cramped house, down the street from a refinery. But there isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, a growing tumor in Walerski’s brain, as yet unbiopsied, 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-Lot’s 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 mother’s cell-phone bill. Walerski wants him to keep most of the money he earns as 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; they’re slowly paying off the $1,500 they owe the electric company.

They haven’t bought heating oil in three years. This winter, three space heaters and lots of sweaters provided the only warmth. (“You’d be surprised to see how fast everyone moves in the house in the morning,” Walerski says.)

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 says.

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. That’s why, on occasion, Walerski goes to a food pantry to augment supplies.

Her husband has health insurance, luckily. Walerski is covered by a state plan for the physically disabled, and the younger kids are enrolled in the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program.

In the supermarket’s 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 says, smiling sadly. “Oh, gosh, it’s hard to tell her no, especially when she’s so cute. But you have to.”

She announces that she’ll have to remember to buy Carnation Instant Breakfast drink during a special shopping trip to a “regular” grocery store.

“I may battle cancer again,” she says, referring to the one-inch tumor in her head. “I’ll need more antioxidant drinks. If I can afford it.”

Widespread yet ‘invisible’

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

There are perhaps 300,000 such people (including children) in Philadelphia and about 686,000 in the 10-county region, according to Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, which he described as the largest hunger-relief agency in the area.

Nationally, there are roughly 52 million working poor people, says David Elesh, a sociology professor at Temple University. “And,” he adds, “it’s 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 may sound ample, but it turns out to be meager wages.

“I know a single mom of seven who makes $67,000 a year, and she can’t feed all those kids,” Clark says. “She’s working poor. Who would have thought . . . that $67,000 wasn’t enough to keep you self-sufficient?”

Because the working poor are a diffuse group, they’re not readily recognized. “There are working poor in Radnor, all over the Main Line, using food stamps at Genuardi’s,” Clark says. “They’re basically invisible.”

Walerski’s husband makes a little too much to qualify for food stamps, says Marylou Laboy, food-pantry manager at the Bernardine Center in Chester, a nonprofit charitable facility Walerski sometimes turns to.

That’s another hardship endured by the working poor, Clark says: Their salaries exceed eligibility levels for certain assistance programs, based on poverty guidelines that haven’t changed to reflect economic realities.

“Sandra is the definition of working poor,” Laboy says. “You think you have problems until you meet someone like her.”

Though she could visit more frequently, Laboy says, Walerski has used the food pantry seven times in the last six years. “She doesn’t take advantage of the system.”

In fact, Walerski gives back, Laboy says, donating new clothes and toys to the center if she believes her children got too much from relatives at Christmas. “She even made me a Christmas gift this year, an angel, out of yarn.”

No frills but still ‘blessed’

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,” she says. She lingers sadly at the meat counter, contemplating roasts wrapped in cellophane, shining under the bright fluorescents.

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

Six cartons of Coburn Farms yogurt go for $3 – protein. Then she grabs Bramley’s 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 says. “I know how to shop.”

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

“Oh, here we go,” she chirps brightly. 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 explains.

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

“Believe it or not, I think we’re blessed,” she says. “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, we’re still struggling. Every day.”

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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