Stuck Between Getting Ahead & Losing It All

Written By: Lisa Ruthledge

Unaccustomed to hosting guests at her tiny, dilapidated Hespeler apartment, Marjorie Knight politely apologizes as she sets out two mismatched chairs in hopes of creating a comfortable place for conversation.

“I never, ever expected I would be in this kind of situation,” she soon confessed.

“I never expected to be poor.”

Still struggling to reconcile her current reality with the life she had always envisioned, Knight ponders out loud. She’s not looking for luck, merely an opportunity to prove what she’s ca- pable of doing if given the chance.

“When you sit with me, what do you see ... when you speak with me, what do you hear? I’m an intelligent person. I work. I have a good work ethic.

“Why did I end up where I am?”

Born in Canada but raised in Jamaica, Knight served as an executive manager of a popular Jamaican vacation resort.

As an educated administrator who possessed resourceful thinking and problem-solving skills, Knight earned a solid living for her family.

It was only after she came to Canada — to Cambridge 11 years ago — that she could not secure a full-time job in the hospitality field. A lack of Canadian experience appeared as a red flag on her resume.

Desperately worried about providing for her two daughters, still young at the time, Knight finally found work through a temp agency at a local energy company call centre. The pay wasn’t substantial, but the hours were constant. She kept her family a float and was even able to buy a home.

The thin layer on which she had hoped to build a foundation for her family soon shattered when the call centre closed.

Not able to find a job quickly, Knight depleted her savings and pension, and ultimately couldn’t fend off  bankruptcy. She had little choice but to swap a permanent address for the temporary residence of a local homeless shelter.

Eventually finding work as a data entry clerk at a Kitchener furniture store, where she still works six years later, Knight can afford a $700-per-month rental unit in a second-storey apartment in Hespeler.

Despite the fact she works between 40 and 44 hours per week, Knight lives a life that barely hovers above the poverty line.

At the moment of the conversation, she revealed she had but a loonie extra to last her until payday, still five days away. By the time rent is paid and bus passes are purchased — to get to work and back — there’s little left but spare change.

“It’s literally month to month,” she said. “You’re paycheque to paycheque." 

“I’ve had days where I sat there and tried to figure out whether I’m going buy food or I’m going to buy a bus pass.”

Knight is not alone in living in such tenuous circumstances. She is part of a disturbing and rapidly growing socio-economic class known as the working poor.

This working class may put in the equivalent of full-time hours, yet their low-income wages are barely enough to survive on, let alone thrive. Benefits are a rarity.

According to a report by the Workers’ Action Centre, Still Working on the Edge, Ontario is developing a “low-wage economy” populated by workers who are “trapped” in part-time jobs that pay minimum wage.

Research conducted by the centre maintains that since the recession, many full-time, well-paying jobs have vanished and have been replaced by part-time, temporary and contract jobs that pay lower wages and often don’t come with benefits.

Those caught in this low-wage trap aren’t there because they’re lazy, emphasizes Knight. It’s not for the lack of trying.

“When you talk about the working poor, and people who are economically disadvantaged, there’s a whole new set of us out there,” she explained.

While there are those who have grown up poor or are well-versed in navigating government social assistance, there are those who have fallen to circumstances beyond their control. 

“There are people who were never there before, who lost their jobs and are unable to find another,” said Knight. “And even if you found another job ... to replace the income, you can’t.”

Tracking the phenomenon of the working poor for more than 10 years, the Workers’ Action Centre contends this segment of society is growing at an alarming rate.

According to its report, the number of part- time jobs available is growing faster than the number of full-time jobs. In 2014, 33 per cent of employees worked in low-wage jobs, compared to only 22 per cent 10 years ago.

For Knight, life is a daily walk across a tightrope with no safety net.

“I am a working poor person, because if something happens to me, I have no recourse, and I have no way of doing anything because I have no real savings.”

Those living this life are also fighting a stigma that paints them as lazy. It’s a myth Knight would like to break. And she walks that talk. The Cambridge woman has done recent mission work in Kenya. She often volunteers at a food bank in the region, yet refuses to bring any items home with her.

“There are so many people worse off than me — how can I just go into a food bank?”

In fact, those who know Knight, and can speak to her work ethic, have on occasion dropped off food and clothes anonymously on her door- step. The goodwill gestures mean she has a little extra to do something for herself.

Knight is currently studying for her Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Waterloo to become a personal support worker, her tuition paid by a relative.

It’s a job that’s close to her heart.

“I needed credentials to allow me to get a job to do something besides doing data entry,” she said. “I wanted to do something that mattered and something that I enjoyed.”

Her current employer has just boosted Knight’s hourly wage in hopes she would stay longterm. The thought of a few extra dollars on her next paycheque put her into planning mode.

“I’m trying to figure out how can I save some money because I have to get myself some shelter, so that if something happens I have something.”

Pat Singleton, executive director at the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank, knows only too well the growing plight of the working poor. Those who had stable, well-paying jobs and once donated to the food bank are now recipients, she said.

“Twenty-three per cent of our families are working part-time or full-time.”

The working poor has become a new focus for the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries, which unveiled the issue as its theme during the 10th annual poverty symposium on May 27.

“We are hearing more about precarious employment situations,” said Linda Terry, executive director at the council. “We are really concerned when we hear about people who work two and three jobs to make ends meets — sometimes — but not always.”

Until recently, those caught up in the newly developing low-wage economy have existed under the radar, as they don’t qualify for government assistance.

“We need to address this,” said Terry. “We’re identifying that there is no identifier. There are folks out there that are falling between the cracks.”



For even more stories and perspectives, please visit the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario On Policy

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