I Had a Middle Class Job and I Still Ended Up on Food Stamps at 60
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On December 23, 2013 two days before my 60th birthday, I swallowed a stomach full of pride and walked into the Department of Social Services to ask for help. It is something I never imagined I would do. I am ashamed to admit that I am one of those people who thought it would always be someone else, someone worse off who just didn't or couldn't work hard enough, who would need that type of assistance. I was wrong, because I am the new working poor.
Both my parents were children of the Great Depression, both knew hunger -- the real, not-having-food-for-several-days kind of hunger. Both knew disappointment. My father had to turn down a scholarship to Notre Dame to work alongside his father, delivering coal to the wealthy. Neither of my parents ever caught a break. Every time an illness or disaster would set them back, they would work that much harder to make my life and those of my four siblings better. We didn't have much, hand-me-downs and second-hand everything. But unlike our parents, we never went hungry. After all, this is America, they would tell us, and your life is not dictated by the circumstances of your birth.
Like my father, I had to start working at the age of 16 to help the family pay medical bills. At 30, I was able to enroll in college classes through a tuition assistance program. Over the next few years circumstances changed, my marriage ended amicably, so I never attained a degree. Overall, I still did much better than my parents had. In my early thirties, I was able to buy a small home despite the fact that mortgage rates were above 16 percent. I worked steadily up through the ranks as a technician, engineer, and manager in small and mid-sized companies, and then I spent the nineties at a large corporation. I did well.
I had no trouble refinancing my home for a lower interest rate; I paid my bills and, unlike my parents, I was able to save money for the future. I could go out for dinner when I wished, and could indulge in my passion for the new home computers. I never went anywhere on vacation and I didn't buy expensive luxury goods but even so, I believed that I was safely ensconced in the middle class. I was wrong.
At the beginning of 2000, I left my mid-level corporate position to start my own Web design and hosting business. Although neither of my parents lived to see it, I had attained their dream for me. I earned more money than I ever had, and I invested my corporate pension into a small business retirement fund.
In March of 2002, one month after my health insurance ran out and three days before I planned to pay off my mortgage early in a lump sum, I had a stroke. Over the next two years, I spent all my savings, including what I intended to use to pay off the mortgage, all my business capital and a second mortgage, to regain the use of the left side of my body. For the second time in my life, I learned how to walk.
Although I was financially trapped, I began rebuilding my business and my clients remained loyal. Then in 2009, the Great Recession decimated my client-base and obliterated my retirement fund.
Most of the small and mid-sized business I worked with were either closed or sold off, and my corporate clients brought their work in-house. Over the next two years my company bled money, and I was forced to move the business into my house to stay afloat.
Looking back I could have survived the stroke or the recession, but not both. Last summer the bank began foreclosure on my home of 30 years, forcing me to file chapter 13 bankruptcy to save it. After 44 years of working full-time as a contributing middle-class citizen, I find myself embarrassed and ashamed that I now earn well below the poverty line and that I am close to losing everything.
The thing is, I did everything right. I worked hard all my life. I saved when I could. I educated myself. I didn't live above my means. I started my business with enough capital, had a viable business model and planned for the unexpected. But I never considered a one-two punch of a medical crisis followed by a global financial collapse.
As a result of the stroke, I have changed. I am angry at myself for not taking better care of my health. I am angry that I am dizzy and my balance is now a conscience act. I am angry that the side of my face always buzzes. And I am tired of being angry.
I am still in business, but I am now the working poor. I can barely afford to upgrade my equipment, and I only spend money on basic essentials. When the DVD player died, I couldn't replace it the same with the stereo, and the garage door opener. I haven't purchased new clothes in years, or replaced the damaged side view mirror on my car. If it's not essential, I do without.
My doctor was willing to work with me to reduce my $700 a month cost for medications. And together we found ways to lower it but I still pay over $100 a month.
So there I was, the Thursday before Christmas, sitting at my computer resigned to not having cable TV because I couldn't pay the bill, and unsure of how long I could put off paying the phone bill before they turned it off. When it hit me: I was living my parents' life. I had come full circle; from the poverty of the Great Depression to the poverty of the Great Recession. The "better life" that my parents worked so hard to make for me, that I worked so hard to improve, had come down to this decision: whether to purchase food for my belly or the medication to prevent another stroke.
So after spending half of Monday at the Waterbury Department of Social Services, I started the New Year with SNAP assistance and a state issued debit card loaded for January with $189. I'm seeking energy assistance, and I hope to afford health insurance on the state's exchange. More than anything, however, I'm working to rebuild my business. I want my position back in the middle class, and don't want my nieces and nephews to struggle like my parents did.
If things don't improve, I may still lose my home and business and then, at the age of 60, I'll have to figure out how to start over from scratch. I am the face of the new working poor in America and I am not alone.