For those living hand to mouth, the holiday season brings added stress: ‘Every time you get an extra penny, something comes along that costs a nickel more’
This article titled “At Christmas, families on the edge of homelessness must choose: gifts or rent?” was written by Erin McCormick in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th December 2017 12.00 UTC
A pile of assorted Christmas cards, decorated with snowmen, Santa and the baby Jesus, sits gathering dust in Sepia Coleman’s dresser drawer. This year, the 46-year-old grandmother won’t have the money for stamps to send them out.
Instead Coleman, a home healthcare worker in Memphis, who works three different jobs at wages that hover around $8.50 an hour, will care for patients on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in hopes of earning enough money to stave off eviction.
At a time when labor market and consumer spending statistics point to a booming holiday season economy, Coleman is one of millions of Americans who are one missed paycheck away from homelessness. Some must even choose between holiday gifts and rent.
Coleman has already received a warning from her usually agreeable landlady that she needs to catch up on back rent by Christmas or face eviction. She makes $1,300 a month and pays $600 rent. She recently had to take out a payday loan because the power company had turned off her electricity. Now she isn’t sure where she will come up with the extra $200 she needs to stay in her apartment.
“The holidays are very depressing for me,” said Coleman. “I’m not a material person. But I don’t have the extra to spend. I’ve been stretching to make ends meet. But I can’t even get the ends to come close to each other.”
While the economic indicators are up for some, a deeper look at the realities facing those at the lower end of the economic spectrum shows many who, like Coleman, are barely able to hang on. For instance, a survey of nearly 7,000 Americans released by the Federal Reserve Board in May found just under half of respondents said they would not be able to handle a $400 emergency expense, without having to borrow.
“People are working; they are just not working at high enough wages or for enough hours,” said Sarah Bohn, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, who studies the economics of poverty. “Wages are not increasing at the rate housing costs are rising. We see that as the number one factor driving poverty.”
Tonia McMillian, who has been running a home-based childcare center in Bellflower, California, for the last 25 years, recently had to scale her program down to six children from 12, because when she paid her assistants minimum wage she found she was no longer earning it herself.
After business expenses and taxes, she said she only makes about $12,000 a year.
“Every time you get an extra penny,” she said, “something comes along that costs a nickel more.”
For the holidays, she wanted to get gifts for the children she cares for, so she is financing it through an online retailer that offers credit for purchases. She’ll be paying it off for the whole year.
Sarah Delte is just managing to survive being a single mom in the expensive San Jose, California, housing market. She said she scrapes by because she has a Section 8 housing subsidy, food stamps and her mother living with her, in addition to having a part-time job at Jack in the Box.
But even working in a city, where the $12 minimum wage will go up to $13.50 on 1 January, Delte said she wouldn’t be able to afford her $2,500 rent without a housing subsidy.
“I’m blessed to have help,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are working and who don’t have anything to fall back on.”
Ann, a home healthcare worker raising a 10-year-old son in Vancouver, Washington, doesn’t know how she would do it if she didn’t have her fiance to share her $1,300 a month rent. The holidays just add a strain to her budget.
“The whole thing’s expensive,” said Ann, who did not want to give her last name. “There’s the Christmas tree. Then you’re expected to host dinner and buy presents.”
This year she had to wrestle with whether to spend the money to take her son to the holiday light show at the nearby Oregon zoo. In the end, she decided it was worth scrimping on something else, so she could spend time with her son.
Charities and homeless services groups around the US will often hold an adopt-a-family program so that donors can help families who are homeless or on the verge celebrate the holidays with gifts.
“That tries to address the problem of what do families do for the holidays,” said Lenine Umali, of the nonprofit Compass Family Services in San Francisco. “And there are people who do want to help.”
For Tonia McMillian, the best holiday strategy is to throw her energy into sharing Christmas with the children she cares for and worry about the bills later.
“I put up the tree this week,” she said. “Me and the kids are going to decorate it. Then we will probably bake cookies.”
“Beyond that, I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll figure it out. I always do.”
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