Sustainability and the Working Poor

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I recently wrote about a few trips I took to a Super Big Box Store. While I do my best to live an earth-friendly lifestyle, hundreds people pile their carts high with cheap goods at mega stores. It’s defeating.

But it was an eye opener and got me thinking. Why is this the trend? What makes these stores so attractive? When I was a kid, these stores did not exist. We shopped at reasonably priced department stores, shoe stores, bookstores, fabric stores, stationery stores, an optometrist, and the hardware store. Each was owned locally, and the merchandise was high quality and lasted a long time.

What gives?

Empty piggy bank

A tough economy

I don’t need to say this is a tough economy – jobs are being cut, people are living off savings, they fear job loss so they cut back to save a little just in case, credit cards are being abused, and the cost of living keeps going up. A budget is a budget, and each family only has so much money to go around. People are working, yet they barely have enough money for basic needs like food, clothing and shelter.

Public assistance has been on the rise since the economy started tanking about five years ago. There are more applications now for food stamps, welfare, housing, unemployment and disability than ever before. People don’t have a choice if they can’t make ends meet on their own.

The paradox here is that services are stretched and being cut! It’s a catch-22 that affects everyone. Businesses suffer because potential customers are suffering. It’s lose/lose.

Tight budgets and cheap goods

Over the past generation, both parents have had to work as the cost of living began to exceed wages. It takes two working adults to keep a house and raise a family. And there still isn’t enough money to go around.

Single parent households have been increasing for almost as long as most families have needed two incomes to survive. People on tight budgets and public assistance are looking for the cheapest way to raise their families.

The Super Big Box Store has attractive prices. Instead of buying a $40 pair of pants that will last for years, people opt for the $15 pair that they can afford. But that pair maybe lasts a year, and in the long run, they end up spending more than $40. The cheap pair also ends up in the landfill sooner and more frequently than the more expensive pair. Super Big Box Stores sell cheap, disposable items, which is not a sustainable practice.

I have bought the $3 tank tops and shorts instead of the $25 items at the clothing store. The Big Box Stores also have cheaper goods than many second hand stores. If you’re on a budget, it is a good place to shop and save money. It’s a conundrum for people like me, but you know what they say – sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Unsustainable food choices

Fast food is another cheap alternative instead of going to the grocery store. You can buy a ‘hamburger’ for $1. You sure can’t cook one at home for that cheap! Fast food is not healthy, but it’s a cheap alternative for people on a budget. This is at the bottom of the health issues in the US, no doubt.


I’m guilty of all of these things! When I was a single mom, we ate off the dollar menu more than I care to admit, but it helped stretch my grocery money. I applied for food stamps and was approved. I was on an even tighter budget after that trying to buy good food with that allotment, so I was buying conventionally grown produce and battery-farmed chicken. I still didn’t have the money I needed to eat the way I wanted us to eat, health-wise or sustainability-wise.

A few years ago, I met a schoolteacher, whose pay was so low, she was eligible for food stamps. Another woman I met had been on welfare with two young boys. She had public housing, food stamps, welfare and medical for free. She put herself through school, got a job teaching, and can barely make ends meet now. She said welfare was a better ride. A single parent friend of mine makes a fair living but is uninsured. She was just a few dollars over the limit to get medical assistance for her kids. Something is wrong here when people who work their butts off are struggling to take care of their families.

Until that trend gets reversed with higher wages and a lower cost of living, sadly the unsustainable Super Big Box Store will be in business.

How do we change it?

But the blame does not land on the shoulders of the Super Big Box Store. It rests on government and society. The cost of living continues to go up while wages do not. The battle over the minimum wage in the US is ridiculous! It’s a good pay for a high school kid to learn to get out into the world while the parents pay all the big bills. It’s NOT a livable wage for a family or even a single person with rent, utilities and food to pay.

Governments should also be encouraging urban farming. Inner city people have less access to fresh food than those of us in rural areas. Yes, urban farming is on the rise, but again, prices are prohibitive, because these small farms are not subsidized. If good, fresh organic food was the same price as that at a chain supermarket, everyone could eat well. The government subsidizes the big farms, so you can buy broccoli for $1/pound. A small farmer can’t grow broccoli for less than the $3 he charges! This is why organic seems expensive, but it’s the actual cost of growing food.

Small farms should be subsidized in the same way conventional farms are. An even better idea would be to tax big farms or take away their subsidies altogether. Then conventional food would be expensive (more costly than organic, since it’s uses a more complex process to grow than simply replenishing the soil each year!), and organic food would be affordable. Rich and poor would be eating equally.

local food

Big Ag would have to switch to organic growing, although it would take years just to remove the pesticides from the soil. Health issues would improve, thousands of pounds would be shed, attitudes would improve (yes, food affects your mood), and small local businesses like restaurants and groceries would flourish.

What’s it like for you?

So what is your world like? Do you feel forced to shop for necessities at the Super Big Box Store due to economic conditions? Do you feel you can’t eat well, because of government agriculture policy? Do you feel like your paycheck doesn’t cover your basic needs? Is saving a thing of the past?

If you can rework your budget just a bit, you will see that buying quality items is cheaper in the long run than buying disposable things. Buying in bulk is also cheaper in the long run. A big bottle of oil purchased once a month is cheaper than buying one small one each week. Through better nutrition, eating well keeps you satisfied longer than eating junk food, so you ultimately eat less and save money. We can be the working poor and live more sustainably, but the government needs to step in and help out the people that make this country run.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.