Rising prices hinder working poor

PHILADELPHIA – Twenty-five dollars. That’s all Sandra Walerski can spend in the Save-a-Lot today for a week’s worth of groceries.

Walerski, 47, who lives in Trainer, Pa., travels over the Pennsylvania line to shop in tax-free Delaware – part of a mighty fight to keep her family of six afloat as the hard-time economy grows wide and deep.

Food and gas prices soar while the dollar weakens and employers shed jobs. People like Walerski are among the worst casualties – a rising number of working poor, generally defined as families with one or more workers making no more than twice the poverty level.

Being working poor is like living in another America, a lesser country where you go to a job, pay bills – do everything right and still teeter perilously close to the edge.

“Working poor is what I am,” says Walerski, who possesses a broad, smiling face and a fighter’s demeanor. “There are lots of us, and we look like everyone else.

Some weeks, Walerski spends as much as $45. But overall, her precious dollars seem to buy less while her four kids are eating more.

Her carpenter husband works diligently to pay the mortgage on the family’s cramped house, down the street from a refinery. But there isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, a growing tumor in Walerski’s brain, as yet unbiopsied, prevents her from being employed. She used to put in 50 hours a week, juggling a day-care job with telephone-survey work. She prays that the cancer that resulted in surgery to remove her breasts does not return.

As she places 3-year-old Gianna in the shopping cart, Walerski scans Save-a-Lot’s specials with a practiced eye, using the calculus of a woman compelled to do without.

She will hunt bargains in a store that has practically no familiar brand names and whose cashiers never ask, “Paper or plastic?” because no grocery bags are offered.

In her head whenever she shops, Walerski tries to balance limited income with endless debt.