This story is part of a series of portraits exploring how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting people around the world.
Alabama, United States – When Cara McClure was in elementary school, every year at Thanksgiving, the school delivered a box of food and a certificate for Buster Brown shoes to needy families in their small community of Powderly, on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama.
One year, the school delivered the box of food to her house. “I didn’t realise we were poor,” she says today at the age of 52. “But it has defined who I am,” adds the activist who would go on to form Faith & Works, a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering marginalised communities.
After the box was delivered to her family’s small three-bedroom house that day, Cara cried in embarrassment and asked her mother why they had received the donation. Her mother explained that they were not making enough money to support the household, which included Cara, her parents, grandmother, five brothers and sisters and an aunt and cousin.
Despite her parents’ hard work – her mother was a hotel housekeeper, and her father a server at The Club, a private supper club – there were more bills than income and Cara remembers the times her family struggled.
But because both her parents were employed, she insisted her mother return the box. Even then, she felt other impoverished families without two working parents were more deserving. Her mother returned the box and figured out another way to supplement the family income.
“All of my life, I’ve had to figure it out also,” Cara says.
In recent years, in particular, she has had to tap into that resourceful spirit and resilience to find ways to pay the bills.
‘Where can I afford to live?’
For the past two years, Cara and her 28-year-old son Brandon have lived as roommates, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in a housing complex in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham.
The sprawling complex is tucked up against a wooded hillside. Scrawny plants sprout from the dirt-packed gutters, the landscape is overgrown, and the paint peels on some of the two-storey buildings. Inside the apartment, a copy of The Policies of Jesus sits on her living room ottoman and sheets of large Post-It note paper line the dining room wall. They outline her professional projects as well as her personal goals for 2022. A collage of portraits with Brandon and her Faith & Works team demonstrating at protests hangs above the fireplace. A placard with the word “love” hangs below.
As a social justice campaigner, Cara has dedicated her life to advocating for the marginalised while trying to earn a living. Her activism is both her ministry and her pay cheque, but she is only paid when she is awarded grants or launches a fundraising campaign through Faith & Works or other entrepreneurial projects she’s involved in. Both have become harder to obtain with rising gas and food prices this year, and she feels, “It’s by the grace of God that I’m doing a lot of his work.”
Cara knows what it is like to live on the edge. Many years ago, after her marriage broke apart, she was temporarily homeless. Without a college degree, she has struggled for years to establish economic stability, even though she had been a successful entrepreneur in network marketing prior to her divorce.
Although she could not afford permanent housing for several years after her marriage ended, she still managed to make sure Brandon graduated from high school. After that, she moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Birmingham, where she started an apartment location business, which also helped her afford her own place.
In 2012, she began working with the Black Lives Matter movement, which led to other similar initiatives. Before she and Brandon moved in together, Cara temporarily stayed with her mother while Brandon stayed with a cousin in a neighbourhood she says was less safe. When they both began searching for new places to live, they realised it would be cheaper and easier to find something together. Pooling their resources also provided an opportunity to save money.
“I try to normalise the apartment because my son lives here,” she says about their shared space. Both are eager to live on their own, but she questions: “Where can I afford to live where I feel safe and can sleep at night?” She already keeps a handgun by her bedside. “Where could Brandon live and be safe? Do we separate just to live pay cheque to pay cheque?”
In June this year, gas prices in Alabama had skyrocketed 54 percent from last year, while average gas prices across the US rose 30.8 percent. The same month, food prices also rose 10.4 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index Report from the US government. As of September, gas prices have fallen in Alabama and across the country, but food prices and other goods and services continue to rise.
Even before the increases in costs, the working poor lived on a knife’s edge of economic insecurity.
Because gas is so expensive, the apartment Cara shares with Brandon is also her office. When she holds meetings, her colleagues gather at her place, and she also drives a car owned by Faith & Works when she needs to travel for work-related reasons. “I use that car because whenever I go anywhere, it’s for Faith & Works,” she says. Without her own car, she has been able to avoid monthly car loan and insurance payments.
Alabama also has a regressive sales tax which means Alabamians pay an extra tax on food products and school supplies that amounts to paying for two weeks’ worth of groceries per year – two weeks without food in the refrigerator or cabinets, two weeks without eating.
One setback, an unexpected health crisis, car trouble or an appliance breakdown and someone who is barely getting by could be facing an economic emergency.
As it stands now, Cara and Brandon split most bills in half with Cara paying the utilities, which can fluctuate dramatically. Brandon is currently a fry chef at Walk On’s Sports Bistreaux and was away on training, in order to enable him to get better pay.
Where they live costs Cara and Brandon $1,008 in rent each month but comes to $1,231 after city taxes and fees for rubbish and storage, which they split equally. The only utility included is water. Currently, a one-bedroom apartment in a safe location starts at $1,200. The two-bedroom apartment she lived in in 2015 now costs between $1,500 and $2,600.
With rent hikes, the increased cost of gas and groceries, and without medical benefits, Cara has cut back in every aspect of her life. “I do my own hair until it’s time for a cut, I only drive for work events and do everything on Zoom to save gas,” she says. In the US, health insurance is often provided by employers as part of a benefits package, since the government does not provide universal, free healthcare; however, only those companies with 50 or more employees must offer insurance to employees. Those who work for smaller companies, or who work part-time, often slip through the cracks. Today, insurance premiums are simply too expensive for the working class, with the average premium costing approximately $8,000 for an individual annually, according to the Kaiser Foundation.
While Brandon is in Mississippi training for his job, Cara stocked a freezer full of packaged meals from a weight loss programme, Nutri-System, which makes meal preparation cheaper while he is gone. Warming up frozen meals for one person is less expensive than buying fresh produce and meat for two.
At a young age, Cara learned from her father that sometimes a person needs a creative way to hustle extra cash during hard times. “When we didn’t have food to eat, my mom would say [to my dad], ‘Robert, we don’t have anything to cook.’ My dad would grab his pool sticks and come back later with bread and the things we needed,” she says. Cara’s father knew that he could play a game of pool and win the money he needed to buy groceries.
She understood early: “It would take more than just a job to take care of your family.”
An ambitious and determined person, throughout her life Cara has lived by the motto: “When you take your eyes off your long-term goals, you are enslaved to the immediate.” Her main financial goal, despite the economic downturn, is to create a combined income from her non-profit, her entrepreneurial enterprises, and social media, so she can create a retirement safety net.
Cara has only had a few jobs in which she has paid a portion of her income into Social Security, a universal pension programme established by the federal government during the Great Depression in 1935. As a result, she is unsure if she qualifies for any retirement income which is calculated from her previous contributions when she reaches retirement age. “All my income thoughts are about retirement,” she says. Right now, “every month I can pay myself, I can contribute to my savings because we split the rent.”
“It’s scary to think about retirement and the struggles and sacrifices of my work, but I’m on my destiny path. The other parts I will just figure out. I’m not irresponsible or not taking care of myself, but grateful for doing God’s vision of my life,” she says.
Last year when Cara was deep in the throes of a stressful work period, she experienced serious heart palpitations and went to the emergency room. Since she cannot afford healthcare, she was saddled with $5,000 of medical expenses she could not afford. Recently, when she was faced with more heart problems, she decided: “I will tough it out. I’m not going to accumulate a bill.” When her goal is to live debt-free, she cannot afford large medical bills and poor credit rating if she is late paying.
Cara says she loves getting to spend more time with her son, but the two would also like to move into their own homes. Still, she knows they will continue to be roommates because of the paralysing cost of living. She is “priced out” and this arrangement, like the one she experienced growing up in a multi-generational home, is her best option, and the only way to live during these challenging economic times.
While Cara believes hard times build character – “God will not put anything on me I cannot bear,” she says – the financial obstacles have changed the daily choices she must make. For now, mother and son continue to make sacrifices, both trying to save for a better place to live while hoping for a safety net for the future.