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.