February 13, 2023

Let Them Eat Tofu: Getting Real about the Struggles of Low-Wage Mothers

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

My community’s social media news page recently discussed the high cost of eggs, and how local food pantries are having a hard time supplying this staple to needy families. One well-intentioned commenter suggested that instead of cooking eggs, recipients should just bake tofu (actually the comment specified that it should be organic tofu). Problem solved.

Yes, comments like this can be written off as a California stereotype (and yes, I personally do occasionally bake tofu myself), but it also reveals a deeper misunderstanding about the challenges low-income people, who are often single mothers, face. One of the biggest challenges is time, particularly time to cook meals for their families. Eggs can just take minutes to cook, and most importantly, might be a food that children are familiar with and are willing to eat.

Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh, author of How the Other Half Eats told NPR how feeding kids on a low income is about more than accessing food. It is a complex part of the overall struggle with scarcity:

For moms who are raising their kids in poverty, in a fair amount of scarcity, being able to make ends meet really depends on saying no to children. Like, you cannot keep enough money to pay the rent, to pay utilities, to put gas in the car, if you say yes to your kids' requests 'cause kids are asking for so much all the time. And I watch these moms say no to their kids again and again and again and again, and I realized something really simple, which was that in this world of no, food - and really junk food in particular - was one of the few things that these moms could say yes to on a daily basis. It was unique in this way. It was cheap - you know, it usually cost a buck or two - and their kids loved it.

And so I found that even though moms wanted their kids to eat a healthy diet, they also wanted to show their children that they heard them, that they love them and that they could give them not just some of what they needed, but also some of what they wanted. And so, you know, understanding those dynamics, understanding what the experience of raising a child in poverty does to a mother as far as impacting the way that she can provide for her children - and, quite honestly, the way that she can feel about herself as a caregiver - really helps us understand that while from a public health standpoint, the Cap'n Crunch is not the most nutritious option, if we think about it from an emotional nourishment standpoint, that cereal actually makes a lot of sense.

Likewise, Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dobson’s book, Getting Me Cheap: How Low-Wage Work Traps Women and Girls in Poverty, illuminates the struggles behind the scenes of the women who work to care for other people’s children, provide home health care, and who are “essential workers” at grocery stores among other low-wage professions.

They point out that while about one in three workers have some parental leave, only 4 percent of low-wage workers do (p. 49). Working long and/or irregular hours might mean less interaction with their children’s schooling (p. 52). They often work weekends and holidays One of their interviewees told the authors, “there’s no such thing as a holiday in my life” (p. 64).

The COVID-related shutdown intensified the struggles for many of these families. Affording childcare has always been difficult for low-income households, but when day care facilities shut down, low-income mothers often had to stop working. For those working to care for other people’s children, they sometimes faced a Sophie’s Choice-type decision during the pandemic: stay within the “bubble” of family that employs them and away from their own kids, or lose their job (p. 196). Staying home with a sick child could mean losing a job (p. 128).

Juggling work and childcare was a constant challenge for the women Freeman and Dobson interviewed. From having to bring sick children to work, staying in their cars in parking lot, being in crisis mode was not unusual (p. 123). Meals were on the fly too, “…Sometimes moms would sneak kids into the back of restaurants where they prepared food” (p. 124). Working late or the night shift creates other childcare and meal preparation challenges.

And then there is the issue of being able to afford food. One form of aid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves 1 in 8 Americans. Of those receiving aid, 66 percent are families with children, and 42 percent goes to working families. But getting aid isn’t easy, nor is it necessarily generous. In 2018, the average household benefit was $239 a month. Freeman and Dobson’s described the process, focusing on one interviewee’s experience:

It starts with interviews, in person and online, to determine income eligibility. If a mom makes it through that gate, then there is the wait, sometimes for many weeks…. We heard from a low-wage mom in Georgia who had been running out of food halfway through the month on her minimum wage retail paycheck. After jumping through numerous hoops to apply for food assistance, she was allotted $20 a month in SNAP benefits (p. 148).

Getting Me Cheap illustrates the stress of living on the edge of an economic cliff—a term they use to describe how daily survival feels for low-wage working moms. For those of us fortunate enough not to experience this first-hand, Max Weber’s concept of verstehen calls on us to understand what this experience is like. This will help us find more productive solutions than simple food swaps when there are no eggs at food pantries.


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