Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

By Caitlin Kelly

No travel...too expensive!
No travel…too expensive!

Have you lived in poverty?

A recent 150+ comment thread at, of all places, Apartment Therapy — a design blog usually devoted to featuring people’s fun, cool homes worldwide — offered a painful, insightful, timely conversation on how some of its readers survive(d) on low or minimum wage jobs.

A few of them:

Charities can only do so much for people, and frankly, when I was living below the poverty line, I chose not to take advantage of a lot of those programs, even though I likely could have, because there were other people who needed it more than I did, and I was getting by, if only just. I was lucky to have no car payment, and a car that was in good condition so the maintenance costs were relatively low. I did, however, end up with pneumonia, because although I had health insurance (I was paying out of pocket for it) I couldn’t afford the copay to go to the doctor and get my Prevacid (not OTC at the time) and as a result I got sick, because untreated acid reflux can do that to you.


Even though I pared down to the absolute bare minimum and had a roommate, I was constantly worrying about my car (but couldn’t manage without it), and paying for food, heat, and health care. Any time I got a few dollars ahead, I had some money-sucking but necessary expense. Living on the edge of poverty wore me out. The kicker was that making minimum wage, I made too much to get food stamps and other “help for the poor”. (Adults with children could get help, and adults with disabilities, but the thinking was that if you could work, you didn’t need “hand-outs”.)

For many years, I made more than enough money so I could comfortably afford a house, buy food & necessities, invest and have some fun, too. Approximately two years ago, my position was eliminated from a very reputable company in the area where I live. I can say that I have never fully “recovered”, financially and emotionally speaking. I’ve run the gamut from tearing through my 401k, applying for assistance, working my share of odd jobs and asking family for help. I’ve been forced to learn a new way of living and the bottom line is that living on minimum wage is DIFFICULT…period. Navigating assistance applications can be daunting and because of my assets (owning a home-by some miracle-still) it just wasn’t happening. I can tell you that I have learned to live simpler, though, w/less trips to the clothing store, no more manicures/pedicures every two weeks, etc. Is it such a bad thing? Not really, but “living simpler” ends up going hand in hand with “what do I do now” in reference to the next utility bill, grocery bill, financial emergency, etc. I do believe the sad thing is that individuals that “do the right thing” such as going to school, working hard, etc can still find themselves in this situation. It constantly makes me think “what did I do wrong” and “what do I do now?”

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, Mexico, France, England and the U.S. (since 1988) — I’m never clear why Americans, some of whom protest that they have “played by the rules,” are so stunned to find their laissez-faire capitalist system has turned against them.

The rules are not made for their benefit!

People who sneer at the idea of accepting (or asking for) government assistance may never have struggled in utter desperation, saddled by illness, disability, injury and/or the collapse of their industry. And many people can never hope for a penny from their friends or relatives.

You can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.

Nor why some of them feel ashamed even asking for help when they have done everything possible to help themselves.

According to this National Geographic story, (August 2014), a staggering six percent of Americans are now “food insecure” and the number of those needing help paying for this food in the suburbs has doubled; here is a radio interview with the author, Tracie McMillan.

While some people can move in with a friend or relative, many don’t have that option and have to figure it out on their own. New York pays a maximum of $410/week in in unemployment benefits, taxable income. Yet in New York City, very few people of any age can find housing for less than $1,000/month. Do the math!

If you’re young, highly-educated, willing to move anywhere a job requires it, in excellent health and flexible — you’ll probably survive. But every one of those categories can shift, as does the labor market and the larger economy.

Nicaragua -- the second-poorest nation after Haiti -- where annual income is $1,080
Nicaragua — the second-poorest nation after Haiti — where annual income is $1,080

I struggled financially for all four years of university, even though my annual tuition was only $600/year. I was living on $350/month and the rent on my studio apartment was $160. I still had to pay for food, phone, books, public transportation, dental work, clothing, etc. My family had too much money for me to get student aid, yet were uninterested in helping me.

So I started selling my photos and writing freelance at the end of my sophomore year — and missed a lot of classes and other cute/fun college activities — in order to bring in additional income. My GPA is a bad joke, one reason I’ve never even considered graduate education. I had to survive!


Luckily, I was able to feed, house, clothe and educate myself. I can still tell you exactly what was in my wardrobe during those years as there was so little of it. I lived in a rough neighborhood until I was attacked in my apartment and moved.

I never, ever want to feel that anxious about money again.

Low-wage or minimum-wage work offers wages so low and hours so few that some workers have to go on food stamps.

Walmart, reports Forbes, cost us $6.2 billion in public assistance to its struggling staff. They “can’t afford” to pay better, so it’s up to us to bail out a for-profit corporation. Don’t you love the irony of corporate welfare?

Have you struggled to survive financially? Are you now? How are you managing?

21 thoughts on “Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

  1. Hi Caitlin,
    This isn’t capitalism that we have here, it is “corporate cronyism”. The fact that the government will supply the food stamps make them complicit in this situation. They wax eloquent about how generous these big shots are. They give to this charity or that charity yet they won’t pay their employees a living wage. We’ve been “Sold Out”!

  2. The problem is not Wal Mart and I am sick and tired of people blaming Wal Mart for our declining economy. What America needs are jobs. High paying jobs. NOT forcing fast food joints, like McDonald’s or Wal Mart to pay a higher wage. Wal Mart, McDonalds and the like have ALWAYS paid a minimum wage. For what reason would they want to pay more? Because the economy in America is sucking right now? That’s not McDonald’s fault. Nor Wal Mart and other fast food joints or discount big boxes fault.
    During the 2012 election, Americans had a choice: vote for Mitt Romney and get a job or vote for Obama and get a handout. How did that turn out for everyone? Americans have no one other than themselves for their demise.
    As for me, I’ve been ‘voluntarily forced’ to lived from $5600 a month to $2400 a month. Try being in your mid-fifties and out of work like my husband is/was. Only our creativity and ingenuity gets us by. I haven’t shopped retail in over 5 years. I wear only clothes bought at Goodwill or consignment shops. I can’t even afford to shop at Wal Mart anymore. I shop at Dollar Stores. I haven’t had a massage in years, ditto for pedi/mani. These things are so unimportant and meaningless to me now. I get my hair cut at beauty schools for five bucks! Give me a break. I don’t complain. I make due and reinvented myself. My whole life now consists of buying food and gas. My husband and I live on my early social security checks and his early pension checks. If we waited till 65 we’d be dead.
    Wal Mart to me now is equal to what Bloomingdales used to be when we all were working.
    Please stop blaming Wal Mart. They are the same now as they always were. Blame the lack of good paying jobs for well-educated people. IMHO, that’s where the real problem lies. I blame our politicians for the decline of American life. NOT friggin Wal Mart!

    1. Thanks for this.

      I am sorry to read this; many people are in this boat…yet (???) there seems to be no political power to express what a mess you are in.

      I DO blame corporate greed…why on earth are we, taxpayers working our asses off, having to subsidize people with JOBS? If wages were decent, people could pay their own bills. I think it’s obscene to “hire” someone and pay them so poorly they cannot even afford to buy their own food.

      You either decide that your workers have skills worth paying for. Or you close your business. I don’t buy it.

      1. You’re missing my point. The men who run these corporations are fully at choice in how they treat and pay their staff. Read a new book called “The Good Jobs Strategy” by Zeynep Ton, who examined in depth the highly profitable approach used by major retailers like Costco, which pay much higher wages and stay in business.

        You do not have to financially abuse you employees, suck up taxpayer money to pay for your absurd decisions and cry poor. I am not going to weep for Walmart. Dollar Store will still be there.

  3. Not too long ago I was struggling with my finances, and if I didn’t have the help of the people around me, I’d be dead broke right now! These days I check my bank accounts online frequently just to make sure I’m staying afloat.

    You know, we spend so much money on useless things as a country. Heck, we even give money to countries that turn around and give that money to terrorist organizations. We should find other uses for that money! Alternative energy, education, welfare. We could become better well-off that way if we changed what we spend money on as a nation, not how much we’re spending it.

  4. themodernidiot

    You take a lot of ibuprofen for the pain of low-wage work on old-age bones, and hope it kills your liver before the next rent is due πŸ˜‰

  5. staciasymone

    Hey there,

    Yes I have struggled.

    No, not anymore! πŸ™‚

    I keep my everything recorded on these financial apps I’ve found. It seems like it would be tedious at first, but the return is so great! Now, I watch what I spend and how often I spend it.


  6. ‘you can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.’ exactly.

    yes, i’ve had those times in my life, after being divorced, putting myself through school, sharing children, working numerous jobs, internships, renting cheap apartments, sharing houses with friends, bad cars, bad food, not enough to possibly pay everything on time or even at all. somehow, we make it through, on pure gumption and will and because there is no other choice.

  7. You say, in reply to ksbeth’s comment, that you wished “people were more honest about their struggles”. Forgive me for raising a wry smile. Do you know what happens to people of a certain age and standing who fall on hard times and are “honest” about it? Let’s put it this way: One of my sisters kindly told me what a loser I turned out to be, my youngest sister will not talk to me till I have repaid her (a not over generous loan). Great, isn’t it? I could give you other examples. But I won’t lest the memory make me cry. When taken to the cleaners I will scrub the floor. No skin off my nose. Wife of father-of-son told me that if she were me she’d kill herself. You can’t beat it, can you. But then she is from California. Pollyanna reincarnated.

    When I was down on my knees (with a child to look after and protect and most definitely not in the market for a sugar daddy) I learnt more about mankind than I ever wanted to know.

    Bitter? No. Alongside those who deserted me – for whatever reasons of their own – I have found amazing kindness and generosity from unexpected quarters without selling my soul. It’s a little late in the day of one’s life but am still holding my head high (whilst involuntary tears soaking a lot of tissue) and one of these days I’ll be back where I started in my early Twenties. My goodness, Caitlin, I was swimming in it – on the back of my own work. Put one foot wrong and you might find yourself digging. Preferably not an even bigger hole.

    I like your “bootstrap” quote. It is a physical impossibility – wishful thinking not withstanding – to pull yourself out of the morass by your own bootstraps. Fact is: Money begets money. Ever had a business card printed? So no one but no one ever tell me that money doesn’t buy you happiness. It [money, the ability to earn it] sure doesn’t make you unhappy.


  8. Dearest U,

    Your comment hurt my heart. It is inexcusable and shallow to abandon loved ones if they are truly loved.

    Escaping abusive relationships and moving company scams left me in a state of destitution that I am still trying to rise from. The people in my sacred hoop stood by me and rooted for me no matter what, and they still do. That’s what love truly is, that is the definition of connection and community. That is what real family is about and what I believe all living beings deserve.

    Can money buy happiness? I don’t know about that, but it sure as hell can bring contentment! Happiness, genuine joy, comes from the chalice of love from within and without. I am so so sorry about what happened to you in every way. But, as my yaya used to say, “Sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in really ugly packages.”

    All the best,

  9. Although my spouse has a nice title that smacks of “executive” in his small, family-owned company we live in an apt., eat out rarely, try to spend little on entertainment, owe some very old debts (we raised five kids on not-too-much when we were building careers) and always worry about our future as two retirees, not just one (I retired at 62 because my last work situation became an ethical nightmare and my health was deteriorating). My not working has made a big difference materially. I used to spend a fortune on haricuts, yet my cheap ones are just fine. And I am so grateful my spouse is still working–he has been a victim of “downsizing” before and rebounded a few times– and will as long as he can. Or is allowed to…But money is not a secure thing, ever. Emergencies create havoc for most people. I try to take each day as it comes.

    But in my twenties and into my thirties I was poor in various degrees, really poor, enough to have to chop up furniture to feed the woodstove so my children and I could tolerate winter (regular heat cost too much); poor enough to feed the kids graham crackers and hopefully peanut butter and maybe cereal while not eating much myself until I finally got help; poor enough to not be able to pay rent or shoes for the kids without help– or go to the doctor at all.

    Yet we got by somehow, as people do. You survive because you adapt, make cannier choices, find resources. Having money is better, yes, but has it been the key to my happiness? No. It does help to be warm (or cool), clothed appropriately, buy basics for food at least and get medical care. It can give you more hope/energy to continue on. Luckily I have faith in the value of a rich spiritual and emotional life, not stuff–I think that is true for most people, bottom line.
    And on the family topic:I have several family members who have more money than I can shake a stick at. It is a topic left alone, better unacknowledged. They have their lifestyles and priorities, I have mine. I care about them dearly but do not undertsnad how they live.

    And finally, I wonder how many people need to help their adult children like we do? Most all are college educated even with Masters’ degrees in their fields. So it never ends these days–this is the country’s economy and the insane business-as-usual way.

      1. Sure Caitlin–but you know not any more of a survivor than so many of those making do while keeping a handle on hope. And far, far less so than countless peoples of this world… may they find their needs met yet…Regards πŸ™‚

  10. Pingback: [BLOG] Some politics-related links | A Bit More Detail

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