This Is What It’s Like To Parent When You’re Struggling To Make Ends Meet

From skipping hot lunches and birthday parties to relying on food banks, the secret struggle of parenting on the poverty line.

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illustration representing parenting in poverty of a woman with her torso in the shape of a house and a child playing inside the house.

Illustration, Holly Stapleton.

Larissa Beckett* couldn’t stop the torrent of negative thoughts as she waited in line at the food bank with her infant son and six-year-old daughter. Where did I go wrong in life to be here? How come I have no support system? I must be a bad parent.

She felt ashamed. Then she felt like it could be worse. Finally, she felt numb.

Her son, Jonah*, was content in his stroller, and her daughter, Celeste*, was focused on her favourite colouring book. When Celeste got bored of colouring, she looked at the people in and around the line—families, seniors, sex trade workers and individuals who wore the signs of drug use on their faces.

“Why are their faces bleeding?” Celeste asked her mom. “We should give them some Band-Aids.”

“They’re very sick,” Beckett said. “We don’t know their story. But we can hope they get the help and the love they need one day.”

It was not a conversation Beckett wanted to be having with her daughter, but she has no choice but to take her kids to the food bank. In fact, she has to take them to several food banks each week just to get enough food and other essentials to sustain her family. “I am always in survivor mode and trying to hustle,” she says. “I’m very tense, and I startle easily. My co-worker said, ‘That’s stress. That’s your anxiety building up, and you’re always on the defence.’”

In Canada, 20 percent of children—more than 1.4 million—live in poverty, according to Campaign 2000, a network of organizations working to end family poverty. Children in families that are racialized, immigrant, Indigenous, affected by disabilities or led by single mothers are even more likely to be poor—a staggering 38 percent of Indigenous children and 40 percent of children with single mothers, for instance.

A 2016 United Nations report card looked at how far disadvantaged children fall behind their peers in health, education and life satisfaction, and found that Canada is one of the most unequal societies for children, ranking 26th out of 35 high-income countries.

“With one in five children living in poverty in one of the world’s richest nations, we have a long way to go to address this issue,” says Anita Khanna, national director of public policy and government relations at United Way Centraide Canada and a member of the steering committee for Campaign 2000.

Many parents who aren’t living below Canada’s official poverty line are still struggling to survive—Beckett included. Along with those who are officially poor, these parents often don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Their work and living situations may be precarious. They may not have the time, energy or means to parent the way they’d like to. Their family’s well-being is likely suffering. And they may not want to ask for help out of shame or fear that their children will be taken away from them.

“Parenting in poverty is extremely stressful,” says Khanna. “Families face an enormous amount of stigma. There’s a lot of judgment and there’s a lot of difficulty unless they have really strong social networks.”

Why are so many families living in poverty?

Getting ahead today isn’t easy. In many communities, housing prices have skyrocketed, and rental vacancy rates are as low as one percent in some cities. The demand for social housing far outweighs supply, and waiting lists can be years long. Incomes are stagnant, and many parents have jobs with poor pay, no benefits and irregular hours that make it difficult to schedule child care—if they can even find it.

Like housing, child care is costly, and lengthy waiting lists are the norm. There are only enough regulated child-care spaces for just under 30 percent of children age five and younger, and fees are out of reach for many families, even with government subsidies. According to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the 2018 median monthly cost of full-time infant care was $1,685 in Toronto and $1,400 in Vancouver.

Until very recently, Beckett rented a three-bedroom suite in a house for $2,300 per month, but she shared a bedroom with her kids and sublet the other two rooms to earn extra money. When she had the chance, she even rented out her room and temporarily moved with her kids to the downstairs suite, where her father lived. She had been trying to get into social housing for several years but languished on waiting lists. When Beckett got word that the house was going to be sold, she started to panic.

Fortunately, a friend of a friend was moving out of a social-housing complex that offers units for single mothers for up to five years and a number of supports, including free on-site child care and life-skills training. Beckett applied and was accepted; her rent is now $1,096 per month. The woman who moved out told Beckett the complex was run like a jail, but Beckett is optimistic the staff can help her with programs for her kids, budgeting and career advancement. “I will take the help,” she says. “I just need a place to catch my breath and time to regroup.”

illustration of a mother holding her child
Illustration, Holly Stapleton.

Beckett has held a secure government administration job with benefits for 14 years and grosses between $45,000 and $47,000 annually, though last year she only earned $38,000 because she went on medical stress leave due to complex PTSD, which results from continuing trauma. She receives no financial support from the father of her children because he’s unstable, unemployed and deeply in debt. She left him because he was abusive. “Whenever he talks about giving me money, he comes over and purposely starts a fight so he can stomp off without paying me,” she says. “I’ve given up on asking.”

When families break down, women are often left to care for the children on their own, and they often don’t have the same earning power as men and may have to fight for child support. Intimate partner violence and poverty are a toxic, yet all too common, combination affecting the lives of many mothers. Poverty marginalizes women and makes them more vulnerable to abuse, while violence isolates women, erodes their well-being and interferes with their ability to work. Both violence and poverty represent a power imbalance and they both play a role in the systemic discrimination of women.

Due to the gender wage gap in Canada—which ranks seventh highest on a list of 42 countries—women only make 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. “Women have higher rates of poverty because of the discrimination they face in the workforce,” Khanna says.

Beckett would like to advance her career, but being a single mom makes it difficult. “There’s always something dramatic happening in my life—my daughter was constantly sick at daycare, I was taking care of my grandma when she was dying, and then my ex went all crazy,” she says.

Instead of moving up at work, Beckett has considered moving down. If she dropped a pay grade, she would qualify for more supports and benefits, and take home more money at the end of the day. Ironically, she works in the office that administers the provincial child-care subsidy, and she regularly hears from moms who have been offered promotions and raises at work but aren’t sure if they should accept because it might cost them. “We go through the math, and they’re often like, ‘I’m not going to take it,’” Beckett says.

Fortunately, there have been some recent positive developments in the fight against poverty. In February 2019, Statistics Canada reported a 20 percent decline in the overall poverty rate between 2015 and 2017, pulling 278,000 children out of poverty. The new Canada child benefit, which saw couples with children get a median payment of $1,200 a year and single parents $1,300, is being credited for the change.

“This shows us that smart investments in effective policies to raise family income and help children get a better start in life work,” Khanna says. “And what we need to do is strengthen our resolve in order to lift even more children out of poverty.”

In 2018, the federal government released Canada’s first poverty-reduction strategy, which is set to become law. The strategy’s key commitment is to cut poverty in half by 2030, but Campaign 2000 is calling on the government to commit to eliminating child poverty by then.

What effects does poverty have on families?

From being bullied on the playground for not having the “right” shoes to developing asthma as a result of exposure to mould in poorly maintained housing, growing up in poverty has a range of social, psychological and physical effects on children, many of which last for life. The stigma, stress, hunger, neglect and trauma often associated with poverty can lead to emotional and behavioural problems, which can affect a child’s ability to make friends and succeed in school.

A lot of the issues start with the perpetual stress experienced by poor parents, which seeps into all aspects of their lives and affects everyone in the household. “Parents are living under the tyranny of immediacy,” says Lee Ford-Jones, a paediatrics professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who also works with low-income families. “Poverty drains the spirit and leads to low hope. That’s not a great place to be when you’re trying to raise children.”

Chronic stress can lead to depression, which can make it difficult to parent. Several studies have found that depressed parents are more likely to neglect and mistreat their children, and parental depression can also lead to a number of adverse outcomes for kids, including emotional and behavioural difficulties. Neglect can also be an unintentional consequence of parents working long hours, trying to make rent and not being present to supervise, nurture and stimulate their children.

“The biggest consequence of poverty is a deep anxiety, because there’s a lot of uncertainty during a time of life when children really need a grounded, stable, secure, loving foundation of a family,” says Jillian Roberts, a registered psychologist and CEO of FamilySparks, an online mental health resource. “The very nature of poverty makes that foundation unstable.”

When children are under stress, they either internalize or externalize their feelings, Roberts explains. A child who is internalizing may not want to play with other children and may pick at themselves or pull their hair. A child who is externalizing may refuse to follow the rules at school, act out and be quick to have fights with other kids. Children who are living in poverty are also at risk of being bullied—and being bullies themselves. “We know that hurt kids hurt other kids,” Roberts says. “A child with more risk factors would have more chances of being hurt. If they have more chances of being hurt, they have more chances of hurting others.”

If kids are going to school hungry, their behaviours can be exacerbated; they may be irritable and unable to resolve conflicts on the playground, or they may be incapable of focusing and slow to learn. A 2015 review article by Ford-Jones and a colleague found that hunger has immediate and long-term effects on children’s mental health, behaviour and physical development, including higher levels of hyperactivity, delays in motor development and increased risk of obesity.

A 2017 study found impoverished children exhibit more anti-social behaviour, such as aggression and bullying, and have increased feelings of helplessness compared to their middle-income peers. They also experience more chronic stress and short-term memory problems. The study noted that these challenges persist into adulthood, perpetuating the cycle. People who grow up poor are also more likely to live in poverty as adults and experience mental illness and addictions.

Like their parents, children sometimes feel ashamed or resentful that they can’t have the same things as their peers. “They feel like it’s a dirty secret they have to hide,” Roberts says. “We live in a very extrinsically motivated world, where the shoes you wear and the label on your jeans matter a whole lot to kids, so a child who’s impoverished isn’t going to have those kinds of things and runs the risk of feeling less than.”

Celeste started noticing she couldn’t do or have some of the same things as her friends around the end of kindergarten, when she began going on playdates. Beckett recalls one time when Celeste came home and asked why she couldn’t have a beautiful painting in her room or a fancy TV that’s controlled with a cellphone—things her friend had. Another time, Celeste asked to go to the JoJo Siwa concert like some of her friends. Sometimes Celeste has to skip birthday parties because Beckett doesn’t have $5 for a gift, and she never gets hot lunch at school.

illustration of a child and mother holding hands outside a school play yard
Illustration, Holly Stapleton.

“She knows it’s about money, but she’ll say, ‘When you get more money, then we can go, right?’ Or, ‘I can be good.’ I tell her it has nothing to do with being good or bad,” Beckett says. “I just explain to her that every family is different and has different things, but she is loved. The questions are getting harder now that she’s getting older.”

Sometimes kids lie to cope, Roberts says. “I’ve had kids say, ‘We’re gonna go to Disneyland at March break,’ and it’s not because they actually are—it’s because they want to so badly that they phrase a wish like it’s actually going to happen. It’s called wish fulfillment.”

Lying can become habitual, and kids may also fib to keep themselves and their parents out of trouble; for example, when their teacher asks if they’ve had breakfast, they lie and say yes. Children may also be afraid to ask their parents for something they need or talk to them about their problems because they don’t want to be a burden.

Parents also go without. Beckett forgoes everything from her basic needs to her social life. Her underwear is tattered, the clasp on her one bra keeps breaking and she wears the runners she got from the food bank without socks because she doesn’t have any. In the past, her friends invited her on camping trips and out for wine and painting nights, but they’ve stopped reaching out because she could never afford to go. Sometimes she doesn’t even eat. But one of the saddest things she’s had to pass up is school picture day. “I literally just want one picture of my daughter,” she says, adding that she asked the parent advisory council if they could help. They couldn’t.

Poverty can have a significant effect on a child’s physical health, and the poorer they are, the more likely they are to suffer.

“Poverty influences outcomes as early as the prenatal time—with more prematurity and low birth weight—right through the life trajectory, along to a 20-year difference in lifespan,” says Ford-Jones. “Preventing poverty is the best medicine money can buy.”

Children living in poverty are more likely to have asthma and type 2 diabetes, and suffer from malnutrition. “Virtually every disease that brings a child into hospital is more common in children living in poverty,” says Ford-Jones. “Not only are they more likely to be admitted, but they will stay longer and have more unplanned readmissions.”

Ford-Jones’s stories are heartbreaking: One kid stayed in the hospital for weeks while his family searched for a new home without mould, because child protection workers threatened to take him if he was admitted one more time for asthma. Another kid said she didn’t have anything to eat when instructed to take antibiotics with food. And a mother couldn’t get her son to the child psychologist appointments he desperately needed because she couldn’t miss work.

Medication, dental care and glasses are also prohibitively expensive for many families. Untreated vision problems make it difficult to learn, adding to the challenges some impoverished children are already facing in school. Low-income children are also more likely to end up in the hospital and die due to unintentional injuries, in part because they’re not getting the supervision they need. As adults, children who grew up in poverty are more likely to have physical disabilities and die young.

Parents’ physical health suffers, too. Research shows people with low incomes have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes than those of higher economic status, and they are often more likely to develop and die from several types of cancer.

How can parents help their kids?

There are plenty of things parents can do to mitigate the effects of poverty on their children if they’re able to make the effort. “Poverty is one of the major risk factors of childhood, but you can suck the power out of that risk factor by adding on protective factors,” says Roberts. “Understanding what supports are available in your community and being as involved as possible is a huge protective factor that balances out the risks.”

Colleen Alphonso* has been living in poverty with her now 10-year-old son, Colton*, for eight years. When she left her violent ex, who struggles with mental health issues and alcoholism, her family income went from six figures to below the poverty line overnight. For the past couple of years, she has grossed $16,000 annually, but she recently started a new job with better pay. Still, Alphonso has managed to give her son a life much like his friends in ritzy Oak Bay, BC, which boasts a median family income that’s nearly 50 percent higher than the rest of Canada, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report. They live in a one-bedroom apartment but still have Colton’s friends over for games nights and sleepovers. Alphonso signs him up for free or subsidized activities, like tennis and choir, and takes out free library passes to go to the museum. He’s in Big Brothers and regularly goes to the pool with the free pass he gets from a community program. And Alphonso has become a skilled thrift-store sleuth, ensuring Colton fits in with his crew.

Of course, there have been times of disappointment. Alphonso recalls telling Colton that it was time to go home when they were at a friend’s house, and another child said, “You don’t live in a home.” As Colton has gotten older, he’s started to notice more differences. “He comments quite often that his friends seem to take quite a lot of trips, and he’s noticed we can’t do that,” Alphonso says. “Sometimes he comments about electronics because that’s the big competition—who has the latest PS4 game. He knows there are income challenges.”

Roberts recommends replacing a child’s disappointment with something to look forward to, and always highlighting the things they can do rather than dwelling on the things they can’t. For example, if all of your child’s friends are going away for summer break, you can plan a special staycation. “If a child wakes up every morning knowing that they’re the most important thing to you, that you’re constantly scouring the local newspapers for fun, free community events so there’s always something to look forward to, they don’t feel deprived,” she says.

Roberts also recommends creating “everyday magic,” which involves doing daily little things that add up to a big effect—for example, reading to your children and putting them to bed at a consistent time each night.

When children think about their situation, Roberts says they have three reference points: themselves, their environment and their future. When you’re talking about poverty, you want to blame the environment because environments change, while making sure the child feels good about themselves, their family and their future, she says. You can say things like, “This is a very difficult time, but it’s going to pass. Our future is so bright.”

“You instill in the child a deep hopefulness,” Roberts says. “The more positive and optimistic your child is, the better their life is going to be.”

Persevering through poverty

Alphonso is able to see the silver lining for Colton. “I think he’s more compassionate,” she says, her voice catching with emotion. “I think he would be a better friend to different types of people because he’s seen different things. I think his experiences have given him a nice, broad range of what’s possible.”

Colton has also learned the value of money and the importance of looking after his possessions. He saved up his allowance and bought his own guitar, and he’s also responsible for paying the bill for his cellphone. “He understands there’s value to the things he gets,” Alphonso says. “He’s not reckless with his belongings. He doesn’t leave his stuff anywhere because he knows I can’t replace it.”

With parents’ concerted efforts, kids who grow up in poverty can actually become more well-rounded than their privileged peers.

“It does not have to scar a child to be raised in poverty. A child can be raised in poverty and not be neglected. They can be raised in poverty and still have a good life and a good future,” Roberts says. “That hardship can give them a kind of wisdom and a kind of deep understanding about life that people who have never gone through that challenge wouldn’t even understand.”

Ford-Jones adds that one of the most important things you can do is advocate for your child, whether you want extra supports for them at school or a referral to a paediatrician. “Forget your parental shame and guilt,” she says. “Give yourself a hug and go after what you need for your child. Forgive yourself.”

*Some names have been changed