My paternal grandfather lived in a rambling old house. Families tended to be large those days, 7 to 8 person households were typical. Our home, set in a large garden, dotted with coconut trees and plenty of space for outdoor activities like cricket and football was idyllic.
My father had a few tales that he used to tell us often. One of these was about his education, how he passed the entrance exam for secondary school at a young age. He was keen to continue his education, but jealous brothers persuaded his grandfather not to support it. He started work as a clerk in a government department. Public sector wage scales were low in those days. A tiff with grandfather left him out of any property inheritance.
Maternal great grandfather was a successful businessman, owned a string of retail shops and an extensive property portfolio. Grandfather was a lawyer and a politician, in the days that politicians were honest. They regarded their work as a service to the community, financed their political campaigns primarily out of their own money.
He was also a gambler, another expensive pastime. The main form of gambling was British horse racing. Every suburb in Colombo had a few betting shops, and we had one down our street. Mainstream newspapers carried results from previous day’s races. My grandfather gambled away a fortune. My grandmother owned the properties; however, it was not difficult to get her to sign on the dotted lines to sell them. After all, he was a lawyer. When grandma realised what was happening, only the house they were living in was left.
There we were, my mother with little money and father with a lower middle -class income in a developing country, a large family to support. He tried to study and be a professional accountant, which would have increased his salary. He talked about getting up pre-dawn, drinking coffee and soaking his feet in a cold water bath to avoid falling asleep. Marriage, children and a full- time job proved too much of an obstacle in the end.
We were living pay-check to pay-check, sufficient money to put food on the table, not much left for anything else. Most companies paid a ‘bonus’, an extra month’s pay, on special occasions like Christmas or the local New Year. That paid for any ‘extras’, like clothing and text-books for school.
Often though, the money ran out before we could buy shoes, one of the more expensive pieces of attire. The adage ‘you can tell a gentleman by his shoes’ was apt back then. Shoes became tight and scuffed, bit into my toes, scraping the skin before we could afford to replace them. Toes retreated inwards and upwards; a cycle repeated many times. My toes had become permanently deformed. We could only buy shoes with a high front end, to avoid painful toes and torn skin.
Poverty was a lack of cash. My parents spent very little on alcohol, perhaps on a special occasion or when we had visitors. There were no takeaways or restaurant dining or vacations. The only thing you could call exorbitant was the sky-high interest on payday loans, sometimes the only option to put food on the table.
My toes are still deformed.
Scars of child poverty are often lifelong. Poverty itself is often permanent, sometimes intergenerational. Effect of poverty-related issues like poor health and lack of education are often lifelong. Work opportunities are usually at the low end of the wage scale, jobs precarious and work, hard physical.
Eradicating child poverty is necessary and beneficial to society. If you want to have lower healthcare cost, a more productive workforce, a happier community, we need to spend more money upfront, early in a child’s life.
A stitch in time saves nine.