When Allan and I moved from New York City to the Toronto area, it meant having much less discretionary income. That took some time to adjust to, and that adjustment grew more difficult as my work situation changed.
When we first moved, I was temporarily writing full-time. Then that abruptly ended. I found work, and had a stable situation for a while, then the law firm went out of business. Then came a roller coaster of bad employment and unemployment, until I started working steadily again, but on a reduced income.
So it's been an adjustment, and not always pleasant.
Allan and I both lived on very little money when we were in our early 20s, but like most people, as my income grew, I easily adjusted to greater comfort. And it's hard to go back.
Now we're much more budget conscious than either of us would like to be. The material things we'd like to spend money on - books and music - we don't, for the most part. Still, we've traveled a little, and I made the big, expensive switch to locally produced, organically raised meat. We can go out to dinner once a week, and we can go out for a beer with friends without having to rearrange our lives. It's tight, but we're enjoying our lives.
I have a co-worker who I've become good friends with. She and her husband earn, I think, roughly the same as Allan and I do - but they have four kids.
Mom Of Four is an excellent mother who tries very hard to give her kids everything they need. She's knowledgeable about nutrition, her kids skate and play hockey, one takes dance lessons, and it sounds like they have a lot of creative family fun time. But making ends meet is a constant struggle.
It was talking about food with MOF that I felt my privilege most keenly. Her choices are so constrained. For example, I eat more salad when we buy bags of pre-washed lettuce, and we buy the organic kind as well. MOF can't rationalize the price difference, when one bag won't even cover the whole family. My privilege reduces my risk of ingesting harmful pesticides, and it reduces my food-prep time, making it easier for me to eat healthier.
We buy gluten-free, organic breakfast cereal, but it costs easily twice as much as the cereal MOF buys, and one box doesn't go a long way with a family of six. Even if we gave up on organic, simply choosing whole grain versus heavily processed breakfast food means a huge difference.
As the price of fuel and food soared this summer, I often thought about my friend MOF and her family. We felt the pinch, but we were still able to eat healthfully. Were they?
There's a story in today's Globe and Mail about the return of processed "comfort food" in difficult economic times. As people put less expensive dinners on the table, they are filling their families with empty calories, sacrificing long-term health for short-term satiety. Do they have a choice? One woman says,
I can go to the grocery store and if I buy four litres of milk it's costing me almost $7, but if I go buy two-litre bottles of Coca Cola, it's going to cost me two and change. That's a problem that I have, and I think it's a problem for society in general.
Yes, it is a problem.
Even in a land of plenty - which, globally speaking, Canada certainly is - nutritious meals are a privilege, one that increasing numbers of people cannot afford. A child who gets poor nutrition starts life with a disadvantage. So in addition to whatever other disadvantages a low-income family may have, their children are less equipped to thrive and succeed.
When I feel discomfort with my own privilege, I do what I do for everything: I rationalize it. In another Globe and Mail story, about Loblaws charging five cents for plastic bags, a woman says,
I spend $300 a week at Loblaws... Now they want me to pay for the bags, too? And what are you supposed to do when your dog poops if you don't have any bags?
If you're spending $300 a week at Loblaws, chances are you can afford the extra nickel per bag. Or instead, you could choose to understand that the point isn't to make you pay the extra nickel, but to persuade you to use fewer disposable, landfill-choking plastic bags. In other words, that it's not all about you.
(I had the same question about dog poop, but we solved it.)
But in general, I can - we all can - read that quote, then look at our stash of reuseable bags and feel good about ourselves. But are the self-congratulations deserved?
Most of us live our lives with a combination of selfishness and altruism, balancing our needs for comfort and enjoyment with our desire - our need, I think - to give to others and to improve the world around us.
I remember a meeting of the Haven Coalition, the abortion-access network I used to help run in New York City. Haven "hosts" provided dinner, a bed, transportation, and some tender friendship, to women coming to New York for second-trimester abortions. It was very labour-intensive work, and for some hosts, it was also a financial burden. For others, the money was negligible - an extra mouth to feed one night a month, a taxi ride, a spare bedroom - no big deal.
At this meeting, we were discussing the differences between hosts and our guests, which was often a chasm of education, social status, class and race. A chasm of privilege. One well-heeled host said, "If you have privilege, use it. Use it for others. Use it for good. Recognize it, and use it for good."
Sometimes when we're caught up in our own struggles, we don't recognize our own privilege. Sometimes it's as close as the person at the next desk.