Saturday, December 12, 2009

Portrait: Central Coast, CA

submitter's note: trigger warning

I managed to score a wonderful job just as the recession hit. I am employed by a non-profit organization, and happily took a slight pay cut in order to regain a sense of personal satisfaction with my work.

My non-profit assists survivors of sexual assault in various aspects of their lives - we advocate for their rights when dealing with police or employers, provide one-on-one and group therapy, maintain a 24 hour hotline, and much more. We also provide educational programs, trainings, and presentations for the community in an effort to prevent sexual assault. Like all other non-profits in this day and age, money is a problem. Federal and state funding has floundered for countless social service organizations.

What has been even more difficult for us is the lack of donations and support from the community. As people scale back their expenses, charitable causes are one of the first things to go, and we have certainly felt the hit. We have also seen interest in volunteerism decrease, despite the high level of unemployment. I personally believe that the fear and dread people feel is overwhelming their ability or willingness to give back to their community, especially when they feel they have received nothing themselves.

We have far less than ten employees, and we have been forced to lay one off and give a pay cut to another. Both women go above and beyond in their efforts to educate and assist sexual assault survivors, and neither deserve to be without adequate income.

Ironically, the stress of the economy and loss of many social service organizations has significantly increased the need for our services. Money problems and other economic fears have "triggered" many sexual assault survivors, bringing back memories and feelings they believed to have been 'resolved' or 'over' years ago. Furthermore, people who were receiving support from other social service agencies that were forced to close their doors are turning to us for help. While we do our best, it is increasingly difficult to meet the varying needs of our clients. For example, we have a lot of mentally ill survivors turning to us for support after their mental health agencies had to close their doors or turn them away. We are simply unable to give the survivor what they need (medication or mental illness-specific therapy) in order to even being the healing process, but as I said, we do our best.

Though we are all being told to "do more with less," that is simply NOT an option when you provide face-to-face, human services. Our counselors cannot counsel two survivors at once. Our advocates cannot be present for one survivor's police report and another's forensic exam simultaneously. Therefore, we will have to begin turning people away.

Turning a sexual assault survivor away is more painful than you can imagine. It usually takes a survivor months, if not years, to get to a place emotionally in which they are ready to share their pain and begin the healing process. To struggle to that point, and then be rejected from the one local organization that can provide you with the healing you need, is indescribably horrible. But we cannot meet the needs of our community without community support, monetary and otherwise. And frankly, our community has completely failed us while expecting our level of services to be maintained or improved.

To conclude, none of us are unaffected by the economy and alone in their plight. For the under- and unemployed - think about volunteering some extra time to a local non-profit. To those struggling to hold onto their jobs, or unsure about their future - think about the consequences of losing some of your most vital social services, and see what you can personally do to help prevent that. I believe that one can find a healthy balance for taking their of their personal struggles while helping to curb larger issues as well. Though everyone needs money, we all need support and a sense of community as well. Ask yourself what you can do to build that sense of community, and help us all emerge from this experience in as good shape as we can hope.

Central Coast, CA

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Portrait: Prince George's County, Maryland

Last night my husband and I broke down and tapped into our very last resort. We emptied my 16 month old daughter’s piggy bank for money to sustain us for the next 10 days until our next paydays.

Despite the dire straits that we might seem to be in right now, we are both in high spirits and counting the many blessings and graces that we have both been granted. All of our bills are paid and we are both gainfully employed in jobs that are definitely not known for being financially lucrative (teaching). We are all healthy but if that fails us, we have amazingly comprehensive health coverage provided by our employers with little to no possibility that it will be taken from us. We have plenty of food in the refrigerator and pantry of more than just the staples and we’ve got a washer and dryer that we don’t have to feed with spare change to work. We both have reliable cars and one was even just able to be paid off. The debt that we do have has been significantly reduced within the past year due to our own diligence at paying it down and eliminating it all together. And to top it all off, we are one of the many American who were lucky enough to buy our first house in one of the most expensive regions of the country and at a price that will not fill us with regret or lead us to foreclosure later.

A part of me has been hesitant to share our experience in this time of recession because our story is so far from being the nightmare that I know others have endured and will continue to endure. I’m certain that plenty of people will read what I’ve detailed of our life and feel it has no place within this collective and also ask what we’ve done to be able to make it through mostly unscathed. The fact of the matter is that our success hasn’t come because of some great big secret though. It’s come from our willingness and commitment to living as simply as possible, understanding and accepting what is no more than just enough, and commitment to living in faith that we will never be given anything that we can’t handle and everything that might seem to come beyond that will be taken care of God alone.

I’m sure that at this point I’ve lost a number of people but I can’t lie and say that our happiness, peace, and joy comes from any place other than a belief much greater than ourselves. Because though we’ve lived a good life, understand that it’s not been easy for us and has definitely included major sacrifices and hardships. Before we were here in life, we lived in a neighborhood where you couldn’t walk around outside at night and you could regularly hear gunfire and see drug dealing. Before we were here in life, there were weeks on end when we trained ourselves to be able to live on maybe one meal a day that was understatedly meager. Before we were here in life, we had to learn to swallow our pride and understand that accepting handouts when they were truly needed didn’t mean an acceptance of the life that we had or an acceptance that things couldn’t or wouldn’t change.

So what’s our secret to “making it” in a time like this? It’s our belief in God and the power of prayer. It’s our commitment to banding together rather than tearing each other apart the way it feels like the world around us is. And it’s our willingness to let go of the life that we once thought we were due so that we can have a life of exactly enough but somehow filled to the brim of everything we ever wanted in the first place.

Despite our differences, our story is as much a portrait of this recession as everyone else’s. Yes, we’ve gained plenty and have succeeded in much. But understand that we’ve lost things as well. However, the things that we’ve lost -pessimism, hopelessness, anger, selfishness, overindulgence, and fear – are things that anyone in this world would be so blessed to lose as well. Because losing all of that will only give way to a strongly rooted belief that hope and faith can and will spring eternal. If only you let it.

Prince George's County, Maryland

Monday, August 31, 2009

Portrait: Puyallup, Washington

My husband and I have spent our entire young adulthood making what we thought were the "right" choices. He got me through nursing school so I could get a good job and I could, in turn, get him through chiropractic school so he could get his own great job. We moved to Vancouver, WA and he started school in Portland, OR. We had our daughter while he was in school and I was working a job that was less than ideal...we just knew that after he was done with his program, we could move home, he would be hired on in a thriving practice, and I could drop back to part-time work. My dream is to work only a couple days a week so I can primarily be home with our beautiful two year old. 2009 was going to be the year our "real life" started--great jobs, the stress of student life behind us, maybe our second child?? Back in March, when my husband graduated and we were moving home, life seemed exciting and without limits.

Fast forward to now, nearly six months later. Shortly before moving home, we made the stupid, stupid decision to buy a house we can't afford, assuming (stupidly) that a chiropractor and a nurse combo team would make excellent money and an outrageous mortgage wouldn't be so outrageous after all. We were lured by the promise of being able to refinance in a year...which hasn't happened, despite my husband's repeated efforts to contact our bank and inquire about our refinancing options. He is continually told to call back in a month, maybe then a new opportunity will come available.

I immediately went back to the job I had before we moved. At first, my husband got a job in a clinic as an associate chiropractor and for a month (maybe six weeks?) things seemed like they were settling down. We were paying our bills and trying to pay off our credit cards, I was working three days a week, we enrolled our daughter in a fantastic (if very, very expensive) daycare. But then my husband suddenly just...stopped making money. He was never hired with a salary, only on a per-patient-visit basis. And let's face it, people. Chiropractic care is not a necessity, it's a luxury. People weren't flocking in to see him, and the insurance payments on the few people he was seeing were taking weeks and weeks to roll in. First, he went two weeks without a paycheck. Then three, then four...we were able to piece it together during that time, eating up what was left of our savings, but eventually we realized he was essentially working for free...not the plan we had in mind when we were struggling all those years to get him through school.

He quit working at that clinic, after going six weeks with no paycheck, and the owner of the practice still owes him money. Apparently, it is still tied up in insurance payments. Let's hear it for insurance companies, yes? We went on an uber-budget immediately while he started pounding the pavement looking for a new position as a salaried associate chiropractor. I went back to work full-time. He finds odd jobs working for family, a paint job here, roofing a barn there...all while still trying to find work in the field he loves.

And I am feeling desperate. Like so many other Americans, I am just trying to hold it together and praying that my paycheck will cover all the bills this month. I have $2500 in credit card debt and it eats at me. I have never carried such a high amount on my credit card and I am ashamed to even type in the amount, but there it is. I make payments every month and I feel like the balance never changes.

I try to focus on the positive in my life, but that, along with my faith in my small family, is starting to unravel. I am grateful for my job and bitter at the same time that I have to spend 40 hours a week there. I am thankful we have enough money to spend on groceries each week but growing weary of the stress that goes along with trying to make only $100 per week feed three people. I remind myself that we still have extras...a great daycare for our daughter and a membership to the YMCA, but I am filled with sadness and dread that these extras might have to be cut in a month or two, if my husband still can't find work. And I am constantly humbled, and flabbergasted, that things like quality daycare and a gym membership have shifted from the "necessary" to the "extra" category in my budget and my mind.

We are not where we thought we would be in 2009. We have no savings, we are (still) living paycheck to paycheck, and my husband has no job. At least I know we are not the only people struggling. Thank you for keeping this blog...I am hoping to email an update in a month or two saying my husband is employed and things are turning around. I guess we'll see.

Amy Murray
Puyallup, Washington

Monday, August 24, 2009

Portrait: Vermillion South Dakota

A few years ago, I was 22 and enjoying my own quiet riot of excess and stupidity.  I was mindless about everything.  Mindlessly dating and sleeping with a man that didn't love me and vice versa.  Mindlessly wracking up thousands in stupid debt, living off of my mother, and just sort of bouncing from idea to idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  I didn't really care or realize the damage I was doing to my future, until I got pregnant with my daughter.  Instantly things changed in my mind and mentality but not necessarily my life.  I broke up with my daughters father, he terminated his parental rights, and I realized how desperately I needed to get myself together.

So, I took a short break (so I thought) from school, got a full time job and bought ridiculously expensive things for my baby girl.  I had no idea of the actual needs for an infant nor of how drastically your finances change with a child.  I was suddenly dead ass broke and desperate.  I met and married my husband in a fiery hurry and realized he was even worse off than I am financially.  We were both stupid and excessive- having drained our savings accounts, lived off of plastic, and not caring at all.  However with a baby and a tender new marriage we had to face facts- no one was going to save us anymore.  It was like looking down the barrel of a gun.

Between our two short lifetimes of collective financial stupidity, he and I had managed to accumulate well over $20k in debt, not including student loans.  We had to borrow money from both of our families to get rid of as much as possible but a funny thing occurs with debt- it never really goes away.  There's always more of it popping up everywhere in your life once you get the vicious cycle started.  Ever heard of zombie debt?  Well, apparently debt collectors can sell your debt files to other companies before you pay it off and they dont have to tell the new company that you paid it off.  So you can get hit up for repayment on your debt several different times.

Isn't that swell?

Then this recession hits.  We were not even living paycheck to paycheck, that wasnt even CLOSE to covering everything.  We both were in school, working, getting government aid because we're parents and still couldn't make ends meet.  We were also painfully awful at budgeting.  It's so embarassing.  I can barely even face myself in the mirror sometimes, I'm so embarrassed by my own financial stupidity.  We've cut back and don't live glamourously by any means but still cannot make ends meet.  

We just had our second child and I got a tubal.  We talk daily about the dreams we have of financial comfort and stability and the life we want to give our kids but honestly, I wonder if we really actually can give them anything other than poverty.  I'm going back to school to become a nurse, my husband wants to design software and do web development, so he's in school for that.  But we still have the rain cloud of debt, bad credit scores, and unsteady finances over our heads.

I know there's more we can do to cut back in our lives and we do try.  Somehow money flows out of our fingertips faster than we can hold onto it.  Every time I blink there's some new expenditure.  Our cars are barely standing or driving but we have no cosigners or ability to get new ones on our own.  I'm bitter and ashamed and hungry for more.  In my world, true success comes in quality not quantity but that doesn't always put food on the table and pay the rent.  We need a break to eliminate the money owed from past mistakes so we have more in our pockets to contribute to the future.

Around here, right now, people have money.  We seem to be in a strange little microcosm- here in South Dakota people can still afford things.  When we have to go to buy the bare necessities at Walmart, there are the plastic wives with their pink polos and frosted hair with their 2.5 children and tiffany chain link bracelets jingling on their teeny wrists.  They have carts loaded and overflowing, they own Sam's Club memberships they don't need, and they load all their purchases into shiny yellow SUV's.  Their kids come away with the big toys like Wii's, etc.  We're lucky to buy our daughter a $5 barbie once in awhile.  Around us people are snatching up LCD flat screens, new vehicles, boats, clothes, etc.  The few times we've been to a mall lately- it's always teeming with hundreds of people loaded down with shopping bags.  How lucky for them.  People are building hugely expensive houses and enjoying the good life.

I lie awake at night worrying about money and the reality of our future.  We want so desperately to leave this place, despite the low cost of living and seemingly good employment rate.  The thing is, we don't have the skill sets to get long term good paying jobs here.  I have nothing against small town living but I'm a loner at heart and a bit of a wanderer, so I want to take my children to cities and other countries.  How will I ever be able to do that?  We are in our late 20's, in debt, with two very small children, and neither my spouse nor I have started our careers yet.  This sounds so whiny and I do accept responsibility for my actions.  But I can't help the fear that creeps over me when I stare at my checkbook and think about how to pay electricity next month.

However, I get incredibly angry at the people who bash our presidents desperate attempts to save our country's economy.  We've been spiraling downward for close to a decade and he's got to undo that or basically lose his job.  All the negativity and hatred directed towards him saddens me and has made me lose faith in America.  People's belligerence and denial of our the reality that is America Today has disgusted me so completely.  I cannot even say I am patriotic anymore.  I have so much faith in the man that leads our country but absolutely no faith at all in the people who live in it.  I see no way we can release ourselves from the recession without him and some very serious changes in our lifestyle that is so devoted to consumerism.

Signing off-

Sara Rose
Vermillion, South Dakota

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Portrait Update: St. Louis Missouri

You published my story on Portraits of an Economy on Mother's Day. My husband and I were in the middle of what felt like a never ending adoption limbo, waiting to find out if we could keep our daughters and sacrificing everything we could to continue channeling money at our lawyers. We were waiting on consent from two of the three biological parents involved (while fighting the third) and honestly, even though we knew we were the best thing for those girls, we also knew the law doesn't really care when it comes to adoptions. The law cares more about whether or not you can prove the neglect that stipulates the disruption of parental rights.

Rereading my portrait, I can tell that I was angry. Or maybe just incredibly frustrated with the whole situation. I'm not entirely certain. I do know that the whole thing had worn me down to the point that I could actually see myself saying goodbye to my daughters. I would be folding laundry and wondering what we would send with them and what we would keep for those inevitable hours spent sobbing on the floor of my closet. I detached a little, not in any desire for freedom but more because I knew that this was going to hurt. I knew it was going to cut me to my soul and I would never recover from the loss of my children. Everyone told us to be patient, that obviously no judge would award an ex convict custody, that no judge would take them away from us. But some days it was really hard to believe those people. Most days it was impossible to see that this would ultimately be over, that we wouldn't live in limbo forever and we wouldn't always be letting go of everything else in pursuit of our family.

I had lost my ability to believe in miracles. I let go of a belief that I had always held close to my heart - that when things are meant to be, the Universe or God or fate or whatever would deliver the right conclusion and it would fit perfectly, even if it was a smidge uncomfortable at first.

Over the past several days, we have been gifted so many miracles I don't even know how to begin to describe the cloud of happy I am on. We received the consent papers from the two biological parents and they were filed without a hitch, meaning we are completely free to adopt one of our daughters. We finally, FINALLY, are paying off our lawyer in full tomorrow and should be finished paying him for good. But most importantly, the judge denied a request from the biological father who had been causing so many issues and requested that our lawyer and our children's lawyer (guardian ad litem) set up a court date so he could issue a final adoption decree. Remarkably enough, the court date is exactly 41 weeks from the day we recieved our daughters. I am shaking my head at the fact that we can't seem to make a pregnancy last longer that twelve weeks but we will 'birth' a family in a normal gestational period.

I don't know that this is in any way fitting with the theme of Portraits of an Economy and so I understand completely if you don't publish it, but I just...I have hope again. I have faith that everything will work out and that life will carry on. I'm not naive, I know that a whole host of things could happen between now and then and we might still walk out of the courtroom without being declared a family. But I can face it now with the knowledge that perhaps a pessimistic outlook is not going to carry us as well as being hopeful, blindingly hopeful, over the potential of our happily ever after. Mainly, I can hold my daughters and kiss them and love them and I'm not secretly wondering how many more times I'll get to do it. I get a lifetime of being their mom. I no longer fear the potential of waking up one morning and my house being empty because someone has taken my children away.

I know with the economy the way it is people are losing hope left and right. They are drowning in bills and facing unemployment and wondering how they are going to get everything handled and still feed their children. There is so much to be afraid of and worried about. But there is also still so much hope and potential for great change, for miracles, to surprise us. I am hoping for the best for all of us, hoping that everyone gets a chance to see a miracle happen in their life and feel unabashed joy again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Portrait: Johannesburg, South Africa

I was laid off at the end of April. I am yet to find a job. I am married, I have a house and a child. Thank goodness my husband still has his job. I don't want to think about where we would be should he lose/have lost his job. My husband and I had good jobs, earning good salaries, with a lot of left over debt from our student and childless and plainly reckless days. I have been unemployed before, for 3 months about 4 years ago- but it was easier then. We lived off our credit cards, and were in the process of paying off that debt when I was laid off this time. I have no idea how we are surviving, but we were - except never in our lives have so many of bills not been paid. Thankfully we are still able to meet our commitments to the medical aid, bond (mortgage), and car repayments, even able to buy food. Everything else is maneuverable - dodging here, paying there occasionally. But I don't think we can last another month like this.

For the first time, I am really scared. There are hardly any positions in my field, and I have been to too many interviews where at the last minute the position is withdrawn.
Over 200 000 people have lost their jobs since 2008, in a country where unemployment is over 30% - this is terrifying. I know too many people who are unemployed, normal everyday people who have lost their jobs due to the recession. South Africa thought we were immune to the effects of the economic downturn. We had tighter banking laws, corporate laws - but the long fingers of the recession have finally grasped us - hard.

I am a positive, optimistic person. I always see the good side of things. I knew I would be working by June, and May could be looked upon as a holiday. I mean I got to spend time with my son on a daily basis. I got to sleep in (we're in the middle of winter here - so this should be a very big PLUS hehe), I've learnt to recognise the tricks supermarkets use to get us to buy what we don't need. I got to watch as much tv as possible - till we disconnected our satellite tv when it became quite clear that I would not be working by June. We have cut down on everything. Except we still have our son's nanny working for us. I cannot bare to think of her as a 'luxury'. She is a mother too, a single mother working her hardest for her family, she is a person not a luxury. If we 'let go of that luxury' - that means she can no longer put food on her table at home, she cannot send her child to school, how can I do that to another mother? So we scrape and scrimp to pay her salary too. And my positivity is dimming. When I didn't get a job in June, I was convinced I would be working by July. Well, I'm writing this to you on 1 July. I keep doing therapy on myself, reminding myself that worrying and stressing won't change anything except my health, repeating the positives, the silver lining. But there is a voice that is becoming increasingly loud, a voice that cannot be argued with as it speaks with pure logic.

I have applied for EVERY kind of job. But if by the middle of July, EVERY kind will really mean every. I've never worked in retail before - this could be my chance :) I'm good with people, I should make a good waitress. These are not jobs I look down on, not in the least. But I had a certain idea or image in my head. But like a lot of my perceptions, that has changed too. There is no longer an image other than that of survival.

So, to survival! And to never having debt again!

Johannesburg, South Africa

Monday, June 29, 2009

Portrait Update: Greenville, North Carolina

Back in February I gave my two cents to Portraits of an Economy. Now I only wish I would have put those pennies in my forever-empty coin jar.

The truth is that five, six, seven months ago I somehow had more money. I somehow had more stuff. I somehow managed to dine out nearly everyday of the week. I somehow managed to do all that and still pay our obscene gas-heating bill. I bought new outfits for special occasions. I thought more about not decorating the Christmas tree than all the gifts I was charging to my shiny new credit card. I went to the movies at least once a week. I got new phones. Quite a few of them, actually. I partiedOften.

Then that big mean bull on the top of Rebecca's blog kicked me right in the ass.

One day I just didn't have any money.

One day my dog ate my power cord. Another day my bank account over-drafted six times in a row (long story). The next day a check bounced. Then I realized my car's loan payments were running low. Then I realized that credit cards REALLY DO accumulate interest. Then I realized my phone bill was late. Then there was a mix up at work with my timesheet and I would only get one paycheck that month. Etc.

I didn't pay much attention to my money troubles. I had my job and schoolwork to handle, and with all the tales and horror stories of the "worst recession in years" plastered all over the media, it was easy to blame the selfish and irresponsible actions of the Wall Street big-wigs. Somehow I thought that because millions of people had lost their jobs and savings, homes and retirement funds, that I was just one of them - part of a crisis. Then, at some point I realized that my financial situation doesn't have much to do with the economic recession at all- it simply rhymes with those that do.

When someone would say, "Money is tight these days..." I could honestly say, "I know the feeling." What I didn't realize is that that person's empty wallet may have been from a job lost or a home foreclosed, while mine was from racing to see the next big 3D movie after dinner at Olive Garden and a trip to the mall for a quick shoe-binge.

I'm still reeling from feelings of guilt and selfishness. I have a job that pays more than enough to live off of. I have a nice place to live. I have more outfits than days to wear them. I have a reliable car with a full tank of gas. I have a fancy phone. I have nothing to complain about except my own stupid spending habits. "Stupid is as stupid does."

I've bucked down.

I cleaned off my bookshelf and started selling stuff on Amazon. My Nintendo DS looks good on eBay, and all my old phones did me proud on Gazelle and BuyMyTronics. I've started "cooking" more than going out, and employ the use of my best friend's food stamps whenever possible. I also joined her wireless family plan, which cut my phone bill in half and got me an even fancier phone (for FREE). I discovered that Netflixpales in comparison to a combination of borrowing friends DVDs, YouTube, and Hulu - and at some point I'm going to approach my roommate with a proposal to cancel our cable TV (we'll see how that goes). My shoe collection is no longer growing at an exponential rate, and it turns out that yardsales are fun (until someone ganks your big-dollar salad bowls).

My plan is to make it through my own, self-made recession, so that when the time comes for me to actually feel the real blow of an economic downturn (let's hope never!), I can make it through relatively unscaved.

I've always been a strong swimmer, but money is murky water with a bitch of an undertow. Even if I have to doggy-paddle, I'm gonna make it to the other side - debt free and kicking my heels. 

Monday, May 25, 2009

Portrait Update: Olympia, Washington

I thought I would send you a little update on what's happened since my first post on Portraits.

I wanted to let you, and the readers know that after almost 6 full months of job searching, I finally was able to find a new job! I start training tomorrow, and for the first time in months and months, I will pack a lunch, get in my car and head to work.

I know there are people out there right now who are wondering if they will ever get a job again. Convinced they will never bounce back from this. Who lay in the dark at night wishing their lives were different, wishing they were different. The only thing I can offer up to people in that dark time is hope. Knowing that if they stay positive, keep trying, keeping going to interviews they don't think they want, eventually something will work out. I went to interviews for jobs I knew would make me want to kill myself. I smiled, and told people that I thought I would love the position, that I would fit in perfectly, that their company was perfect for me... while deep inside I wanted to die at the thought of actually working there. I went to interviews where I was the third choice, the second choice, and never the first choice.

And then, out of nowhere, when I had even begun to get used to being unemployed, I found a job. A job with a company that I can be proud of, a position that I can be proud of.

In what felt like my deepest and darkest moments I looked for beauty in my relationship, in friendships, in small moments that could keep me moving forward. Losing my job taught me patience, the ability to let go of control, and to find happiness in the things I have, instead of focusing on the things I want. Now as I move on into the world of employment, I can only hope to hold onto those lessons I learned these last six months.

And in the meantime, I guess I'll just keep dictating my life to others... The Accidental Olympian: One woman's journey of getting laid off, finding it impossible to land another job, moving to Olympia, and eventually starting over.

Olympia, Washington

Portrait: Detroit, Michigan

I called my father the other day.

Our nanny had quit on her first day - which happened to be my first day returning to work from maternity leave - and I wondered if he could help us out for a week while we found someone else.

No, my sixty-year-old dad said. He had to find a job.

A job? What about your retirement? What about the gunshop?

No, said the man who had always been The Wisest Man In My Life. The shop isn't bringing in enough money and your mother's job is killing her.

My mom is a fifty-nine-year-old registered nurse in an intensive care unit. There are no orderlies and only a few LPN's. She has to lift, tuck, turn, and position patients by herself, no matter how big they are. Last month, a patient went crazy and pulled her across him. He nearly dislocated her shoulder and she still has some bruises from the encounter.

Oh, I said. Is there anything I can do to help?

No, he said. Just don't end up like us - paycheck to paycheck, no retirement, drowning in debt, with no way out.

Oh, Dad, I said. Didn't you hear? That's the new American reality.

Detroit, MI

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Portrait: St. Louis, Missouri

I suppose in the grand scheme of things, I don't really have anything to complain about. My husband has a good job that provides insurance. He just got a raise and will (probably, hopefully) get a bonus in June. We can currently afford our mortgage (although thanks to a shady refinance guy, it's on a balloon and set to go up in November but our mortgage company is trying to help us as best they can) and all our bills. We can even afford some luxuries like going out for ice cream or a movie. 

The thing is, in November of last year, the day before Obama was elected, I got a phone call from my cousin who is only a month older then me. We had always joked that between the two of us, we had done it right - I got married, she had kids. I have serious fertility issues, she does too except hers are that if a man sneezes in the same county she gets knocked up and I can't seem to get knocked up for the life of me. So she calls me around midday on the 3rd of November and at four am on the 4th my husband and I pulled in to our driveway with two little girls in the backseat of our car. 

She didn't think she was a good parent and didn't want to parent anymore, so she asked us to take the kids instead of her giving them to the state. In a matter of hours we went from zero kids to two under two. 

All of a sudden our budget has to make room for lawyers bills and increased insurance and the extra food, clothing, water, diapers (although we use cloth), and other things kids need. She dropped them off wearing shorts and tee shirts (in November in Chicago, coming from Michigan) with one spare diaper, a binkie for each girl, a bunch of half broken toys and some clothes that ranged from newborn size to preteen girl size (the girls were 11 months old and 2 and a half at the time). We had to dig deep in our savings to get them beds, clothing, coats, shoes, bottles, plates, cups, diapers, toys, etc. You never realize how much kids need until you have them on your doorstep and you realize you have nothing for them. 

We have gone from barely surviving to almost thriving now although it's taken every bit of the past six months. In the time while we've been trying to figure out how to pay for everything involved in having kids, my cousin has moved to Mexico (with her parents footing the bill), moved to Canada (with her parents footing the bill) and told me today she's going to Hawaii for vacation but will possibly decide to move there (with her parents footing the bill). My husband and I had to stop going to school for at least the next year so we can pay for things like the custody battle for our oldest since my cousin "forgot" to tell the biological dad who was incarcerated at the time that she was giving us the kids and preschool and groceries. We've had to cancel vacations, borrow money from my parents, spend our entire tax return ($6,000) and sell things on Craigslist and Ebay. 

I could get a job but it would have to be at nights because I don't really have a skill set that would make it worthwhile to put the girls in daycare, but it's been hard to find something that will let me work only in my available time frame. I do odd jobs when I can - random things like babysitting or petsitting that don't pay much but every penny helps. We went from being carefree twenty somethings who vacationed three times a year and never worried about money because we made plenty of it to being on an uber budget so we can afford food for dinner tonight and to make everything legal to keep our daughters. Meanwhile, she's globetrotting and can't promise she'll be in one place for an entire week so I can send her the paperwork to get her rights revoked and help us with our adoption. 

The crazy thing is, I wouldn't trade it for the world. I love these kids so much that I would live in my car and sell tee shirts out of the back if that's what we had to do to keep them. My husband feels the same way. We've given up eating out, going to school, going to movies and concerts, buying books, having our own laptops, vacations, new clothes, and having pets so we could dedicate every penny to lawyer fees. Instead of buying groceries at Whole Foods and eating all organic, we buy from the farmers market and Shop N Save. Instead of going for movies we take our daughters for a walk in the park, instead of going to a bookstore we head to the library. The things we're doing to save money seem so very basic but it's been a huge lifestyle switch for us. 

I do get angry when I think about my cousin hanging out in Mexico and Hawaii, living off her parents money and spending all day on the beach. I get angry thinking about how it's going to hurt my girls when they get older to know they were given up because she was bored with parenting. I get angry when I have to decide between paying the lawyer and having a date night with my husband as she's posting pictures online of her sitting on a beach with a margarita. 

But really, I know that right now, in this economy, I've got nothing to complain about. We're insured. We have a house that we can afford. We're making it, barely, paycheck to paycheck, but we're making it. And we have two gorgeous, amazing, wonderful daughters who have brought more laughter and happiness and light to our lives then I can ever explain. Someday this will all be done - the lawyers and the budgeting and the worry will be gone. In the end, we'll still have each other and we will know that we're stronger for having figured this out, for thriving under these intense conditions. If nothing else, I keep telling my husband it will be something to tell the girls when they are older, to tell them how hard we worked to keep them.

I just keep reminding myself that it's simply another life lesson, another bit of proof that love will sweep in and leave you breathless when you least expect it, that surprise blessings can bring challenges but that doesn't make them any less of a blessing, and that the look on my daughters faces when their daddy comes in the door at night could never carry a price tag. 

St Louis, Missouri 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Small Town West of Atlanta, Georgia

I’m 21 years old, and I’m incredibly grateful just to have a job, and a place to live. I’m the one and only customer service representative for a small medical supply company about 45 minutes outside Atlanta. My boyfriend also works with this company, and thanks to the economy we have seen our already small staff progressively dwindle in size; he and I are now the only two full time employees. We are overworked and underpaid, each of us carries the responsibility of several different jobs, and every layoff adds more and more responsibility to our positions while adding absolutely nothing to our paychecks. There is no overtime at this company. If you work more than your scheduled 8:30-5:30, you receive no extra pay in return. There are no bonuses, no incentives.

We live frugally, going paycheck to paycheck, barely making enough to squeak by, and have accrued a couple thousand in credit card debt from floating groceries and gas when we run out of money. We share a vehicle that is fortunately paid off, but it’s on its last leg. We have no idea what we will do when it dies, we can’t afford a car payment. We have some meager savings set aside, but it’s hard to save money when it runs out so quickly. Even so, we get by for now, but just barely.

My mother’s portrait is entirely different. She and my father divorced several years ago. In the stress of the divorce she made the rash decision of leaving their beautiful new home and buying a fixer-upper from the 70’s. She lives there with my two teenage sisters, both of whom are still in school. Our father rarely pays any kind of child support, and left her with a massive amount of debt from their marriage. Still, they were getting by.

My mother is intelligent and hardworking, she had been employed with an international company for over ten years, and was the best at what she did. Then the bottom fell out of the economy and her branch of the company was closed. They wanted to keep her, they wanted her to move to Minnesota, or New York, but the housing market was in shambles. She knew there was no way she could sell the decrepit half-renovated house they were living in, nor did she want to move my sisters to state and another school district. So she stayed. She had a great resume and pristine references, she should be able to find another job in no time, right? Wrong.

She searched for 8 long depressing months, and then finally got a job with one of her former company’s competitors. It meant taking a pay cut, but it was something. She was there for four happy months, and then she was laid off with no warning. She was out of work again for another four months, then when things started looking hopeless, she managed to get another job, with another huge pay cut.

The already massive debt from her marriage was only made worse by the months she was without a job. Food, car payments, mortgage payments, it all went on credit. By no means were they living extravagantly, but because of all the debt they barely made ends meet when she was making $30 an hour last year, before the economy went to hell. Now she makes $15 an hour, and she is doomed to be in debt for the rest of her life.

I cried myself to sleep all those nights she was without a job, when it seemed imminent that they would lose their house, and my mother and my two little sisters would be homeless. Now I cry myself to sleep knowing that she will never be able to retire, knowing that she will never get the rewards she deserves for all those years of hard work. I cry myself to sleep knowing that there is nothing I can do to help her.

She wants me to go to college so badly, and I would love to have the opportunity to do so, but it seems so pointless now. A few months back, my company was considering hiring another person to share the workload. They posted the job listing on one site, and within 24 hours they were flooded with hundreds of resumes. People with years and years of experience, with bachelors and masters degrees, they were all desperate for a job that paid $10 an hour. Why would I go to college now? I want this situation to get better so badly, but it’s so hard to be optimistic when the world seems to be crumbling around us. But deep down, I know that there is only one direction to go when life has hit rock bottom. Up. So I’m sitting here, looking up from this pit, waiting.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Portrait: Vancouver, Washington

Sunday, May third, was shaping up to be a typical workday for me and my co-workers at the salon I work at. We'd been steady throughout the day, but as the foot traffic tapered off, my co-workers went home. By 4:30 pm, it was just myself, our receptionist Dede and my last client of the day. Thirty minutes before closing, Dede, the receptionist, began to count the cash from the till for the day when the door opened and she looked up to greet the incoming customer.

He wasn't a customer. He was a man with the only intention of robbing our salon. Though he spoke quietly, he threatened to shoot us all if she didn't obey him and demanded that she give him the deposit for the day and all the cash we had on hand. Disoriented, scared and confused, Dede quickly put all the cash lying in front of her into a bank bag and handed it over to him.

"I normally wouldn't do this," he said as she gathered up the money. "but I have a sick child at home."

He left as quickly and quietly as he'd come in, getting away with four hundred dollars. Dede slipped behind the wall that separated my station from the lobby, her eyes wide and her face pale and panicked. "We were just robbed."

Who robs a hair salon? Who would think to do that? It just speaks volumes to me of how desperate people are becoming. My own husband has been unemployed for six months and we are feeling the crunch from that every single day. But it wasn't until now that I truly felt the sting of it all.

Vancouver, Washington

Monday, May 4, 2009

Portrait: Lee County, Florida

I'm 19 years old, and was born and raised in Manchester, NH. As a high school student, I never thought that I'd experience the face of homelessness, nor did I think that several others would be experiencing this. I also never took the time to think much about how the poor spending that I was doing, and the economy class that I was taking for senior year in high school would really teach me anything--but boy was I wrong!

I moved from Manchester, NH to Miami, Florida on June 16th 2007. This was an interesting experience for me, as I was going to Florida for the first time, and was going to be living with my fiancee and his mother at her house in Cutler Ridge, Florida. I participated in a program called Police Explorers in South Miami. Every Monday, I'd be dropped off by Jason's mother Rebecca, and I remember she used to say "Look at these people, begging for money. Why can't the VA help them if they are Vets of War?" I didn't really pay much attention then, but every week, there were more people in wheelchairs, sitting under the bridge with no legs, begging for money. It didn't make any sense to me, so I called the V.A. who told me that they were simply full, and had no more room for any homeless Veterans ofWar. I remember thinking "How could that be? These people serve our country, but can't get any sort of assistance when they are home? How is that fair"? My Fiancee Jason was at the time working as a manager for McDonalds Corporation, and paid his mother $500 a month for rent, and we were financially stable, as we actually had money to use for our needs at the end of the week. These were when times were okay, and good for us.

In October 2007, Jason's mom determined that since I turned 18, and Jason was 19, and we were both adults, we needed to grow up and live on our own. I was the stupid 18 year old that got offered a credit card from Citi Bank, and it was for a $1000 credit limit, and I thought "hey this is great, money to spend on our needs, and money for the move" We packed all the necessities, and moved from Miami, Florida to Cocoa, Florida, and I used that credit card to help pay for rent--Jason easily transferred to a McDonalds and was hired as a shift manager, and our rent was $550 a month for a one bedroom apartment. We also had no furniture when we moved to our apartment, so we decided to rent everything from a Rent-A-Center, and that was about $300 a month, and then we had cable/phone/internet which was about $200 a month, give or take. We realized that we still hadn't factored in Electricity through FPL, and realized that we had no money left over--so Jason's friend Donald moved in with us, and we were able to make it, but just barely. We had no assistance at the time, and I applied for Food Stamps, and thankfully was accepted, but they only offered $57.00 a month in food, so we had to use our food stamps sparingly..this was based off of Jason's income, and Donald got SSI. We were making it--but just barely.

The holidays came, and I remember that this was the first time in my life that I didn't have an actual holiday with gifts and family, and that was because we couldn't financially afford this. My bank account through Bank of America had gone to crap, and ended up negative, and they closed it, and my Washington Mutual account had also gone to crap because we had bills to pay, and me as a young 18 year old thought that bouncing checks was the way to go when you needed to survive--survival of the fittest in the sense. Bank ofAmerica offered me a credit card of $500.00 and I accepted it, because we were hurting for money--and Capital One offered me a credit card for $300.00 and I accepted it because again, we were hurting for money. My Bank of America Credit Card went to buying a car, because we needed one--we got a cheap 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, and the people who sold it to us, knew we didn't know much about the car, and decided to tell us it was working condition--a month later it went to the shitter, and died on us--Cocoa P.D. told us we coulndt drive the car because of the fumes. We were left with no car--and still struggled. I used the $300 from Capital One to get a Christmas Tree for Christmas--it was a fake one, but at least it would brighten our spirit for the holidays--and Jason, my fiancee cooked dinner with Donald--we spent the holiday the way people who have no money did--with friends and family that love you--and we enjoyed ourselves. We were still making it--but just barely--and I didn't pay any attention to the fact that I had no job and no income to pay off my credit cards--so I let them go.

In February 2008, we got our tax returns back--combined we had over $1500.00 and our apartment complex told us we needed to leave, because of three reasons. A. because of our dog, apparently they claimed our puppy was over 35 lbs, and he was not--we had the vet papers to proove he wasnt that large--B. because of Donald living there--when we told the office that he was living with us to help with bills, and C. because of the plumbing issue that we had been having since the first day we moved in. They told us we could leave willingly, or they could evict us--we decided to be smart, and move so we don't get an eviction on our record--our plans were to move to Orlando, Florida to an apartment complex called "Bella Casa" because they were furnished, with everything included, and between Donald, Jason and I, we could afford the bills and the rent. We also used Jason's last paycheck to get a 1995 Nissan Pathfinder from a buy here, pay here place in Cocoa, Florida and we told him we would mail the payments. We had the car, we had everything ready, and we told the apartment complex we were showing up--doing the paperwork--and moving in that day. We got to Orlando, Florida and the apartment complex, and they denied us--because Jason didn't have transfer paperwork for McDonalds, I had no income, and Donalds SSI wasn't enough to meet the income requirements alone--they kicked us to the street in Orlando, Florida and this was when things started to get bad for us--we were faced with homelessness for the first time in our life--but little did we know, this wouldn't be the last.

We decided to take some of the money, and get a motel for a few days, and try to enjoy ourselves because we were stressed and needed to get a plan together fast--We took two days to figure out what we were going to do--and we ended up deciding that we should move to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania where a friend, who we thought was a friend would help us. We drove 48+ hours up the east coast through every state on the East Coast, hitting every major city, and finally got to our destination. At first, we thought everything was going good--We had a hotel paid for by this friend, and then when it was a week into the stay, she took off with all our money, and left us stranded with very little money, and homeless in the middle of no where for the second time in a week--we were broke, and depressed--so we paid for a night in the motel, and Jason got on his knees and cried out to God, and said "Please help us" a day later, Jasons father John called us, and told us he would help us--it was the miracle we needed--but little did we know, the situation we would later get ourselves into.

Jason's father John lived in Fort Myers, Florida, in the county of Lee. We didn't know much about this county--though we knew we had two choices--stay homeless, or let his dad help--we chose to let Jason's dad help--so we drove all the way back down the East Coast to Fort Myers, Florida. When we got to our location, the only thing I really noticed in North Fort Myers was trailer parks--I didn't know why, but If it was a place to live, I was content. Jason's dad had a trailer, and he refinanced it in Jason's name--and we were responsible for paying the trailer rent, and the lot rent for $325.00 a month. Everything was included, we were doing okay. Jason got a job at a local McDonalds franchise on Pine Island Road inside the Wal-Mart. He was the highest paying shift manager, and he was making 40 hours a week, $10.00 an hour. We had plenty of money left over--until McDonalds laid Jason off because he was the highest paying manager there and they couldn't afford to pay him anymore--Jason tried for unemployment--but they denied him, and he appealed--and finally gave up--We ended up getting behind by rent and loan for 2 months--I was trying to get a job, and there was no where hiring--we didnt realize we needed to recertify for our food stamps, to continue getting the benefits--and so they were cut--and we had never thought growing up that we would need to go to a food pantry to get food--but we suckered it up and went--and I was shocked to see just how empty the food pantry was.

Eventually, in August 2008 we got kicked out of the trailer park (Rivers Edge on North Tamiami Trail and Callosahatche Bridge), because Jason's dad wanted the trailer back for himself--so Jason and I decided to look for an apartment--we ended up being given a week to find a place to live--and we ended up moving to a place in downtown Fort Myers, Florida named Reflections. We loved it--it was perfect for us--never did we think we would have the day that would come when we had to choose between paying rent, and paying electricity--but that day eventually came. Jason had gotten hired at a newly opened Panera Bread in Page Field Commons, and he was hired for $8.50 an hour, and had 15 to 20 hours a week--it paid the bills--mostly rent, but then the left over went to other bills--Comcast and FPL. Our Rent was $650 a month for a 2 bedroom 2 bath apartment--in October 2008, Donald took off, with our saved rent money--which put us behind in rent--and we had to choose between paying FPL, or Paying Rent. We paid FPL, and then turned our keys into the apartment complex and notified them that we were terminating our lease--but what we didn't realize was that we would owe them a totalof $2000.00 for prorated rent from the months we lived in the apartment complex because the original rate for the 2 bed 2 bath was $950, and they gave it to us prorated on a special--I've never in my entire life thought that I'd have to choose between rent and electricity--this was the first time for me, and this was when I started to realize that the economy was going downhill.

Instead of trying to get a different apartment, we moved in with someone we found off of Fort Myers Craigslist who needed a room mate to help with his financials. His name was Mark Wells. It was October 25th when we moved in. Jason and I no longer had a car, because it was repossessed because we couldnt make payments--so Jason had to take the bus to work. He had to take route 20, transfer at Rosa Parks, and then take 140 to work, which cut his availability down a lot. He was told by the store manager that he might loose his job if his availability couldn't be figured out, so he said the only thing he couldn't do was close--and that made him able to keep his job. November 2008 was what would throw us another curveball.

I found out November 20th 2008, a Friday that I was 8 weeks pregnant from my doctor. I had no pregnancy symptoms, and was just going to his office for a routine physical exam, where he draws blood for pregnancy to be safe from those that are sexually active--mine had came back positive. I didn't know what to do--and so I decided I'd go home to New Hampshire to be with my family and friends for the holidays--I moved from Lee County, Florida to Manchester, NH on December 4th 2008. I stayed in New Hampshire until March 24th 2009--but the economy in NH would throw me a curveball I didn't expect while being pregnant.

I ended up staying with my best friend Kim Beaulieu from December 4th 2008 to January 1st 2009, and on the 1st, I moved in with my mom--this lasted until the 5th, when she kicked me to the street because she couldn't financially afford me living there without help--and I ended up being homeless on the streets, again, while being 3 months pregnant. I never thought growing up that I'd have to live in a homeless shelter--and this was where my reality check began on just how bad the economy really was.

I ended up staying at New Horizons Homeless Shelter in Manchester, NH from January 5th 2009 to March 24th 2009. During my time at the shelter, I was able to get NH Medicaid, Food Stamps, and on the waiting list for Section 8 and NH Housing. I was also able to get seen for my pregnancy--but the waiting lists for housing were so long because so many people were jobless and had children, and they were priority--In the homeless shelter, there were people there for various reasons--some because their parents kicked them out--others out of income because they didn't have a job--and most were Vets of war--again with the Veterans of War--why was there no help for them?? There was little out there for anyone living in a homeless shelter. Why was this? Shouldn't we get some sort of assistance? I started to ask the questions in my head one by one--it just made no sense to me.

March 24th 2009, Jason my fiancee, paid my way back to Fort Myers, Florida. I said goodbye to all my family and friends, and DCF in NH said my services would easily transfer. I was 24 weeks pregnant when I arrived back to Fort Myers, Florida. It turns out this was not the case at all--I came to find out just how bad the economy in Lee County, Florida had gotten since I had left. Mark, our room mate, who worked for Lee County Parks and Recs had been laid off from work, and was moving to another state--we got our own apartment in the apartment complex--but that still wasn't the main issue at hand. I needed healthcare for my pregnancy--because I'm high risk.

I didn't know what Lee County had for services--so I applied for medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. I was denied because I had my case open in NH, and NH had to fax a closure letter--and then they'd open my case, which could take up to 60 days, and that was time I didn't have. So I started to call around to OB offices to see if they could see me--no luck. I tried Family Health Centers, who said they can't see me unless my pregnancy medicaid was active, I tried Lee Physicians Group who said I was too far along, and I tried Physicians Primary Care of SWFL who told me I was too high risk to be seen at their office. They referred me to an office in Naples, Florida, and the doctor said he would see me, with no insurance because I was high risk, but I had no car and no way of getting to and from Naples--so I had to decline. I was furious--So the wait began and 24 weeks eventually turned into 28 weeks, and then 30 weeks. Finally my medicaid became active, and our food stamps were pending--we had to go to a food pantry once again, to ask for food, because we had none--and I was once again shocked to see how bare this was. By the end of the week, our food stamps were active, and we were thankful that something was going right--but when we asked about Cash, the county denied us--Jason made too much money which I didn't understand? He makes $800 a month, $500 goes to rent, $150 to Electric $100 to Cable, and $70 to bus passes, which left us with no money--and they denied us cash? Why? The questions started to run through my head again--but the one main reason I was given was the economy, which I slowly started to realize.

I had been getting childbirth education in Manchester, NH through Ourplace, Carenet, and Healthy Families. Carenet, Ourplace and Healthy Families were all federally funded--and these programs existed in Lee County--but when I called about services, they told me that their funding was cut and they no longer provided the classes, or the assistance with baby items--I was crushed. So then I realized "Well how am I going to get to my OB appointment?" So I called a few places that were listed to help with transportation, and they told me "We don't provide that service anymore, our funding was cut" which made me realize just how bad the economy was--but why wasn't there anything out there for pregnant high risk mothers who needed assistance? It made no sense to me--and thats when I googled "Why is there no help in Lee County, Florida" and came across your blog.

Jason and I still struggle today--often our arguments are about finances, because we have to sacrifice our needs for bills--like I previously stated, we have no money after we pay Rent $500 (which we have to save Jason's first paycheck to be able to pay on the 1st of the month) and $150 to Electric (Because FPL will turn you off if you don't pay on time--we've had that problem before) $100 to cable (I am on hold for a work from home job--because the economy-they cant hire me right now, but I need the phone internet and cable) and $70.00 for bus passes ($35 each, one for me and one for Jason) we're left with nothing left over--and I still struggle--for example--I got into an argument yesterday because I felt as though I was a bad mother because I couldn't get the baby things I needed for my daughter because we had no money--I called my mom to complain, and she said she can't help--because her finances go to bills too--it made me realize just how bad the economy is, and how much everyone is struggling--but the thing I can't understand is why there is no help for Lee County, Florida? We have the most foreclosures in the country, our homelessness rates are sky rocketing, and their are hardly any jobs anywhere--its pretty sad when McDonalds isn't even hiring anymore..its sad to see so many families--so many people including young people such as myself (19) and my fiancee (21) struggling--its really sad that people have to sell their things to make money--and its sad that the government isn't doing much to help our county either!

So thats my story, and those are my thoughts.

Lee County, FL

Friday, April 24, 2009

Portrait: Olympia, Washington

Unemployment has left me with many dark days. Days where my eyes burn from tears, where I ask myself over and over, “What am I doing wrong?” I have moments where I think I might never find a job, where I will be forced to give in and work in fast food to simply pay my bills. I have days where I doubt my skills, and days where I just want to give up. But strangely enough, unemployment has also brought me extreme joy…

After loosing my job, I made the tough choice to leave Seattle, WA, a city I had grown to love over the last five years, to join my boyfriend on his relocation journey to Olympia, WA. I was packing my bags and moving to a city I had never visited, a city that was smaller, less cosmopolitan, away from friends and familiarity, to try to change my luck. I had used up all my savings trying to pay rent, interviews weren’t producing jobs, and I had run out of options. I was scared, and mostly terrified that my life as I knew it was coming to a pitiful end. I couldn’t find another job, and so I was being forced to leave.

Yet here I am. I have been unemployed for 138 days now, at least a hundred more days than I ever imagined I would be unemployed, and I’m still standing.

I no longer have a beautiful apartment on Lake Washington, but now I have a house that I share with my loving, supportive boyfriend. I can no longer afford to buy myself clothes, but instead, what little money I receive from unemployment I use for flowers in my garden, or home cooked meals on my table. I can’t afford to go bar hopping with friends any longer, so instead I sit on my porch with a cheap glass of wine and enjoy the company of people who care. Now that I no longer spend 40 hours a week at work I finally have time to start a blog (The Accidental Olympian), take more pictures, keep in touch with friends, and enjoy nature. The city I loved so much kept me from having the time, or space to get a dog. Now that I am no longer working, I finally adopted a puppy, and can enjoy being a dog owner once again. I might not live in a bustling city any longer, but now I take afternoon walks along the river and find enjoyment being in nature. EVERYTHING in my life is different after loosing my job, and as hard as it was to take in all these changes at once, now that I’m here, accepting my life, things are better than they were pre-unemployment.

I still get down. Only yesterday I found out that both of the jobs I interviewed for, both of the jobs I worked so hard to receive, selected a different candidate for the position. It’s hard to continue to accept second place, it never feels good to know I wasn’t their top choice, but I keep applying, keep searching. Eventually my life will change, either with a new job, a new opportunity, or a new chance. Until then I’ve learned to live with the uncertainty, accept my life as it has become, and keep moving forward.

Olympia, WA

Monday, April 20, 2009

Portrait: Toronto, Ontario

I spent the last 6-½ years working for a small non-profit organization. The money wasn’t great but there were perks in other areas. My business wardrobe was all jeans and Ts, so I never had the expense of pantyhose or dry cleaning. The benefits were beneficial; I rarely paid out of pocket for prescriptions or visits to the dentist. I enjoyed my co-workers and, for the most part, I enjoyed my job.

Earlier this month I was informed that my position had been ‘restructured’; that I did not have the ‘skill set’ for the new position. I was shown the door. There is money to ease this transition. Twelve weeks of pay and the potential to receive an additional eight weeks of pay if I sign a release that will protect the organization’s ass be beneficial for all involved, seeing as they restructured the position of the lone staff member with a child and no partner, who took eight (8) days of paid sick leave in order to deal with mental health issues. I’ve seen the new position and it is well out of my league, since I’m not one for working 60-hour weeks and need the occasional day off to deal with a sick child.

What may save us is that I have always lived cheaply. But, on the flip side, it means that is very hard to scrimp in order to save money. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article about saving money that didn’t highlight how much can be saved by giving up a latte habit. I have no latte habit. What I do have is the habit of making a thermos-full of coffee each morning (the cheap stuff; not the fair trade coffee I’d prefer to be drinking) that would get me through the day. When I had an office to go to.

Living cheaply means that my daughter and I shop at second-hand stores for our clothes and our books. When I left my husband two years ago, I took only what was mine from our pre-marriage days. I furnished the apartment I share with my daughter with items from Craigslist, Goodwill, and Value Village. When I inventory our space, I can find only two items that came to us new and out of boxes – my bed and the bookshelves. I say to friends that if I cannot find it second-hand, then I likely do not need it. My grandparents purchased my favorite pieces –a rocking armchair and a radio cabinet that our TV sits on – new, but almost fifty years ago. The armchair appears in the background of my mother’s wedding photos, circa 1966.

At the beginning of the winter, I bought a pair of leather boots. New ones. Nice ones. They are likely to last me at least five years and can be worn for three of the four seasons. I see these same boots – smaller versions – on the feet of my daughter’s buddies at daycare. Her same buddies that can grow three inches in all directions, seemingly overnight. The Mook’s boots? $5.99 from LL Bean. Well, via Goodwill. There is enough life in them at the end of this year to be passed onto a friend or a neighbour, most likely a fellow single mom.

We own a car, but it doesn’t get out much. We’re on the transit system for our daily to-and-fro. Although you are supposed to pay 70 cents for a child over the age of two, I’ve not paid once for her, even though it’s been 18 months since we celebrated her 2nd birthday. My brother, who has worked for this same transit commission for nearly a decade tells me that most drivers can’t tell a 2 year old from a 7 year old and that it is not worth their time to request the id of a small child. My transit pass is $100 and allows for unlimited travel, which helps on those days when I was on the streetcar four times daily, doing the shuffle from home to daycare to work to daycare to home. Next month’s pass has arrived in the mail, but I already have a buyer for it and I’ll lose just $10. I am hoping that by the time the April pass arrives in late March I will be back at work someplace that is accessible by our disappointing transit system.

Our daycare costs are equal to rent, but 75% of the cost is covered by the city. This program is in place to enable parents to work and be able to afford childcare and food. Of course, you need to be working in order to receive this subsidy and there is an honor system in place. I’ve left a voice mail message for the case worker that manages our city ward. I need to call her again; I do not want to be accused of fraud. They will allow a twelve-week period of not working before they pull the subsidy. I’m already on week nine and I’ve not received any response to any of the resumes sent.

Of all things, it is the daycare issue that scares me most. Without the subsidy, I would be paying $1150/month instead of $150/month. I can’t afford $1150/month. Five weeks from now, if I am not working, I have to either find the money or pull her out of daycare. Believe me – having a 3 ½ year old at home while I’m job hunting is not ideal. And then, when I’m working again, I have to find a new daycare spot. And re-apply for the subsidy. Both will involve waiting lists of 12-18 months. At which point I would be better off applying for welfare (Ontario Works). And will join the ranks of the other single moms keeping it together – raising happy healthy kids while trying to dig myself out of poverty.

Toronto ON Canada

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Portrait: Attleboro, Massachusetts

I saw a strange man walking up the street Sunday morning. I had already been to Church and back. I was waiting for my boyfriend to call me to breakfast. I heard the strange man before I actually saw him. He was yelling at someone…someone I could not see.

I felt a chill run up my back. I saw my arms break out in goose flesh. This was a big man with very long legs. He was very animated, furiously ranting and waving his arms in the air. He was scary.

He did not belong on my street. We don’t have crazy, yelling men walking on my street. I had never seen him before. He was walking on the ‘wrong’ side. We have no sidewalks and the road twists and turns and cars often drive way too fast on this street. He was actually at risk while he was yelling at his ghost.

Why was he walking on my street? Then it dawned on me. This is a sign of the “economic downturn.” I’m sure he shouldn’t have been out without supervision and at one time he probably would not have been out without supervision. But there are budget cuts everywhere and in my small city there is a hospital that takes care of people like this. My thought is that he came from there, unsupervised, uncared for.

And then two days later, after work, I was driving down my street to go to an afternoon appointment with my doctor. I saw another strange man. He was also tall, with long legs but he was younger. He was walking down the street, with a big long stick in one hand. His jeans were ripped and dirty (not in the stylish way). His hands looked dirty also. He was using the stick to pick out cans from the weeds and the woods. I drove slowly by, watching him scratch the back of his head while he carefully examined a can he dragged out of the long weeds and grass.

And I thought…this is too close to home. This is scary. This is really happening to us.

I am living paycheck to paycheck. I have started a savings plan, and I am praying that it works. I watched my retirement funds plummet while I kept getting my “financial advisor’s” voicemail. I cry when I think about the fact that I will be the Wal-Mart greeter long after age 62, 65 or even 70. Wal-Mart sucks, but it will serve one purpose for me. I will be the greeter, and I will use the discount they offer. Hopefully that will keep me from eating dog food in my golden years.

Last year, in 2008, my 29 year-old, late-to-launch son had surgery on his neck. He is an apprentice in an electrician’s union. He has medical insurance. However, he does not get paid when he doesn’t work. He moved home two weeks before his surgery.

His surgery was done in early February. He returned to work late in the month of November.

I kept up with his car payments. I paid his insurance. I paid his union dues. I gave him money for gas. I gave him money to spend on his girl. I was generous and it was hard, but you do for family, right?

In the summer his girl rented a cottage. He was able to drive by then and he wanted to help her, I know he did. He stole money from me. It was around $600 maybe a little more. That was money I planned on using for my vacation later in the summer.

I forgave him. He went back to work. He borrowed money to buy his girl some presents for Christmas.

He did some jobs around the house for me.

He still lives with me. He still borrows money. He is back at work. Last month his transmission died. I paid $1500 to have it fixed.

A week later he borrowed $500 for court costs (long story).

I asked him to build me some shelves in the closet. The job is sitting there, half done. Everything that was in this closet is out of the closet, on the floor, on a desk, piled on a bureau. He started this project 2 weeks ago.

This is strange to me. We have always been close. He knows he is hurting me. He hears me talk about my savings being wiped out, working at Wal-Mart. He seems like a sociopath to me lately. He doesn’t care. I think the “economic downturn” has burnt a hole in his soul. And it is now burning a hole in my heart. In reality, I know he suffers from depression and I know that he knows he is behaving in a very distasteful manner. I love him, but he needs to fix himself. I am very close to asking him to leave.

I want to get married. But I can’t afford to get married. It is important to us to get married in the Church. But that costs money. So we sit in the rear pew every Sunday, knowing we are sinners in the eyes of God and everyone else around us. And we faithfully pray for a break and to retain our good health, and we faithfully pray for my son and my daughter, and all his family and my family. And we dutifully put our envelope in the collection basket. But we can’t get married. Another year. Maybe next year.

I was divorced about 6 years ago and bought the house from my ex. He falsely elevated the value of the house, costing me an extra 30K, but I bought it anyway, rather than give it to the lawyer to fight about it, and figured that I couldn’t lose if I put the sweat equity into it.

I cleaned up the credit card debt HE created. That was to the tune of $25K. I managed to get about $60K into investments. That’s almost gone now of course, because of the “economic downturn.” My ex bought a house, a hot tub, a new motorcycle and managed to give his male lover Burberry purses and manicures.

But, no one ever said life would be fair. I honestly can say, it didn’t take me long to stop thinking about him and move on, even if we had been married over 25 years.

I began to feel excited about life again. The divorce had been good for me!

I painted the old house myself. I put the sweat equity in. I even got stuck on the roof once for several hours until someone came home because I am so terrified of heights. I painted the outside, painted the inside, put in new carpets and floor, new windows, and renovated the kitchen and bath. I did this one project at a time. I used 0% interest deals over and over. Paid off one, and then started a new one. I did a lot of work myself. I am proud to say, I carry no credit card debt even today! The value of the house increased dramatically.

But I’m afraid the value of the house did not weather the storm of the “economic downturn.” It’s not even close to what it was a few short years ago. Fortunately, I can pay the mortgage and the bills. I am not behind, but I am no where near close to being ahead. Occasionally I have to ‘kite’ a check. But that’s only when my son has hit me up hard.

I lay awake at night constantly running numbers in my head. I am living paycheck to paycheck. I have cut back on groceries, on the heat, on the AC. I started coloring my own hair when I got divorced. Now I cut it myself. (At times you can really tell, but for the most part you can’t). I haven’t really bought any new clothes in a while. I will not need new shoes until the autumn. I might ask for them for my birthday in August. If anyone is giving gifts, that is.

I lay awake at night and think about what’s in the attic that I could sell on eBay or Craigslist. I am making myself sick.

I have some meager life insurance. But I really wanted to leave the house to my kids, figuring that would be worth something. I wanted to give them something that would help them in life. I thought the value of the house would do that. I wanted them to smile and think of me because I could help them financially after I was gone. I cry because now I see that leaving them the house is going to be a burden, rather than a gift.

Tonight I have to speak with my son. I have to tell him I can’t pay for his school books anymore and I can’t pay his union dues. I can’t loan him money, and I can’t even abide to use the word loan anymore.

And he will get pissed off and not talk to me for a while. But he will still come home at night, go downstairs without saying a word and come up later when I am sleeping to eat food.

He might finish the closet in another week or so.

The strange men I have seen walking on my street? I sometimes think I have imagined them. They are visions of my son. These men are my 30-year-old, failed-to-launch son when I simply can’t support him anymore.

For me, the “economic downturn” is the equivalent of gnawing fear.

Attleboro, Massachusetts

Monday, March 30, 2009

Portrait: Portland, Oregon

Three weeks ago, my fiancĂ© and I were standing in our kitchen talking about the fact that money had become a huge topic for us. We made a solid six-figures, but there was never enough, we always wanted more, we wanted to save more, etc.... For some reason, we always craved more. The constant need for more felt heavy, almost making us sick with greed. Although we’d only been out of school for less than two years, we had quietly joined the rat race. MORE! and BIGGER! and BETTER! constantly pounded in our heads every day so much that we felt sick about it.

I literally said a prayer afterward that we might once again be grateful for the things we do have instead of always asking for more.

Seven days later, he told me his firm was closing their doors in 30 days. His last day of employment will be the day of our wedding. Three days later, I got a similar notice from my company.

All in one week, we got just what I had prayed for. Suddenly, everything we have is a blessing. The fact that we have heat is such a luxury, we haven’t used it in a week and just stay bundled up at home instead. We are so grateful for our old college cars, instead of eyeing vehicles with a hefty car payment. His birthday was Friday and instead of getting him some flat screen TV or taking him out to an expensive dinner, we were grateful for the friends that came over to have BBQ hot dogs and potato salad on our porch. And as cliche as it sounds, we are incredibly grateful just to have each other.

I’m hardly wearing make-up – saving what I have for our wedding day. We are taking public transportation. We are getting creative in a limited kitchen. We downgraded our phone plan, our TV, Internet and are finding free entertainment at home. We might have to move to another state. We will probably have to move out of our home unless a job offer comes fast. We had to un-invite 100 people to our wedding reception and instead, we’re having 20 people for dinner following the ceremony. It might be a short trek to another job, but it might be a long, long haul that we have to buckle down for.

A couple weeks ago, I had mentioned to him that I felt like the “economy” hadn’t touched us. Until the next week, when it did. We are still in relatively shallow water, and call me crazy, but I feel somewhat refreshed. Lighter. Stressed, yes, but suddenly the rats around us have gone ahead and left us. Maybe the feeling with be brief, but for now, I feel like we’re free from the race. Until further notice, we'll be stuck on a less flashy journey that is much scarier, but slow enough for us to notice the things we otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice about, and to really, truly feel grateful.

Portland, Oregon

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Portrait Update: (A Silver Lining) Singapore

I wrote a while back about my uncle, whose is suffering through a second relapse in his long battle with cancer. He could barely afford the treatment, and it broke my heart that my childhood hero had to battle the financial demons along with his illness. I see how weak, how sickly, how gaunt he got. I see how his eyes take on that look, which suggested he no longer wanted to fight. I see my 75-year-old grandmother quietly weep as she sees her youngest son suffering, unable to eat, or talk, his speech and eating abilities both seriously compromised by chemotherapy.

But I also see how material possessions don’t matter – what makes him rich is not years invested into his business, but the relationships he’s forged with his family and friends. I see how love is the glue that holds us all together, even in the face of death. ‘For Uncle Andy,’ says my youngest sister, who saved what she could from her pocket money so she could contribute to Andy’s Fighting Fund, as I’ve come to call it. I see courage as he tries everyday to be normal – to whisper now that he can’t speak, to eat as much as he can stomach despite the blisters and the pain, to smile even though the tumour is pressing down on his nerves, making it a challenge to emote, to express.

We just got a call from his doctor today, and Andy’s tumour has shrunk by fifty percent. There is a good chance that if he continues the treatment, the tumour might eventually shrink to a point where medicine is able to contain the growth, and give Andy the time that he needs to do what he’s always wanted: to bring my grandmother on a trip to China, back to her hometown.

“Don’t stop smiling,” Andy told me one day. “I never wanted to, until the day I realised I couldn’t any more. Keep smiling, niece.”

And that’s exactly what I am going to do.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Portrait Update: Good News, Detroit Michigan

wrote a while back about my mom, the provider of the family, losing her job after 25 years. She was applying weverywhere for a position but no one would hire her. She rarely even got an interview. Well...someone she used to know through work called her recently to tell her he had mentioned her to a company he knew that was hiring. I'm not sure what he said but he must have said something amazing, because not only did she basically get the job on spot, they even offered her a higher salary than what she wanted. They're giving her more money, insurance, and the time off she needs. Its really pretty amazing.

Just when you think that things can't get any worse, the stars align and everything just works out. Something inside says, everything will be ok. My parents are saved this time, and I hope one day one of us will make a recommendation for someone else to save them. Don't even
burn bridges. Be a genuinely nice person, and people will remember.

Detroit, MI

Portrait: Phoenix, Arizona

Everyone always says that it will never happen to you; you will never loose your job. And then it does.

In seven months.

I can understand loosing one job in a lifetime, but two in less than a year? I still don't quite understand how a young, married, college educated professional, who played by all of the "rules", could loose two jobs in the space of 7 months, through no fault of her own. Some days it sill doesn't seem real. I wish the Universe would play this game of life by some fair rules, instead of cheating and making me suffer the consequences.

In March I was working as an engineer for a national construction company. When I graduated from college less than 3 years before, construction was THE industry to get into in Phoenix. Not to mention, the company was great and I liked working there. Then the call from the HR person came on a Thursday morning and all of a sudden, I'm laid off. No job. No income, only two weeks of pay for severance. Fortunately, my husband and I were in a good spot in our lives and had wisely saved up money, and suddenly very thankful that we had been able to save the small amount we had. We tightened our budget tremendously and figured we had enough savings to get us through this. The unemployment payments helped, although they didn't cover much more than groceries and gasoline. My unemployment was only going to be temporary and short. I would soon find another job and we'd be back to normal in a few months.

My plan of getting a new job entailed a career change. I had been looking into it for a while and this seemed like a sign from God telling me now is the time to do what I wanted to do. It took 3 months of job searching, interviews, submitting resumes online, to get my new perfect job, a job I loved doing. And it came with a salary cut of over $15,000. "That's alright. I'm new in this field. It'll be fine. It meets our budget and that's what matters", I thought, dealing with the initial sting. We kept our tight unemployment budget to make sure we were putting money into savings again. Less than four months into my new career, my perfect new job, the economy imploded and I lost my job. Again.

You start to question everything you did at your job(s). Did coming in to work a few minutes late here and there matter? I stayed later to make up for it every time, didn't I? Surely those times when I stayed late working on projects and didn't bill it to my time card evened that out. Didn't it? Did my bosses just put on a show when they appeared to like me and my work? Was it my work that just sucked? If that's the case, why wouldn't someone say so? You would think that would come up in the periodic employee reviews. It couldn't have been a personality conflict; everyone was super nice to me and genuinely appeared to like me. Or was it all an act that I was completely oblivious to? Especially when I feel like I read people well?

It takes some time to really answer those questions in truth toward yourself. Coming in a few minutes late didn't matter. My work was the best I could do and completely fulfilled the needs and wants of my bosses, even exceeded a lot of the time. And everyone really did like me.

It was the second lay off that really hit me. The first time I had a plan, with steps, that was completely obtainable. I had a goal I was working toward and I knew that it would be attained in a short amount of time. I even knew I was going to be happier with the new career. The second lay off was completely unexpected, out of the blue. You don't think that your brand new dream-job will end in less than four months. It doesn't even enter your thoughts in the tiniest way. Suddenly you're faced with these questions: What do you do when you've exhausted your meager savings with the first period of unemployment? What do you really do when you've found a job you love and now you don't have it anymore? How do you tell your friends, AGAIN, that you've lost your job again? And when they respond, "Seriously?" what do you say to that? Like I would really joke about this.

So, I'm on to searching for another job, after a few months out of the workforce. I just could not make myself look for a job for a long time. I floundered and seriously did not know what I wanted to do. I did not know how to make my dreams become a reality.

In all of this, I am extremely thankful that I have a husband who still has a good job. That I have a husband who supports my employment decisions because he just wants me to be happy. That we were able to keep our house. That we have both been healthy during the time of no insurance. That I have a support network of friends and family that care about me and are willing to help in whatever way possible.

I've come to accept and be happy that I'm now starting my third career in a year (and now a fourth). It's been a long journey of really high highs and extremely low lows in the year since my first lay-off, but I've made it through. While the economy doesn't look stellar even now, I am confident everything will be ok. I have to be optimistic about life. It's just not worth living if you don't think anything good can happen even during the not-so-good times. I firmly believe God is good and that He has a plan and will take care of me.

Phoenix, Arizona

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Portrait: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My husband and I are both creatives (he's a graphic designer and I'm an ex-scenic painter/set designer, now interior decorator). We didn't start out like you and your husband. We met in college and were immediately best friends and roommates. Six years later we were married. I keep trying to reinvent myself career-wise, while C held a good salaried job with some wonderful, returning freelance clients. I eventually found some stability working as an interior decorator for an ikea nearby just as C was offered a full-time position as an art director of a growing NY hedge fund. For the first time we were completely flush. We could buy anything we wanted, see theatre, eat out. It was bizarre and amazing. We saved so much money, knowing it would eventually end. We saved money and bought a house. We saved money so I could get pregnant, have a baby and take a year off. We thought it would be no problem for me to take my experience at Ikea and find a job doing displays or decorating somewhere else. C would work another year or two at the hedge and then we'd talk about starting a design studio together. We dreamed.

Then J was born. She was amazing, but she didn't sleep, didn't eat well, couldn't be put down. She was five weeks old when C was laid off, his hedge being one of the early implosions. We had savings, so much more than most. C was so qualified and talented, he'd find another job in no time. Five months later there was finally a job, though J had gotten easier to care for, as she discovered the world. We were still tearing through our savings, so a couple months later, I
started looking for work. We played with budgets and possibilities. It was pretty unlikely that I would be able to find a full time job that would pay enough to cover childcare and our shortfall, but I had to look. Something was better than nothing, right? I looked for four straight months. I networked and emailed and searched. We tightened our belts even further. I recently found a job as an design assistant for a local interior designer and I love the work. The pay is good, and my boss is interesting and understanding. It still isn't enough, but we're almost there. We have to hope that the occasional freelance client will help us keep afloat as our savings dwindles and no better paying jobs are in sight. We're not as concerned as we used to be. We feel confidant that something will turn up.

Here are the good things to come out of our circumstances. For the first five months, of our daughter's life, both of her parents were with her, learning her personality, caring for her. We also cared for each other. We're still struggling with parenthood and all it's complexity. And we don't know the future. But we have to hope that things will start to get better, just like it has for us. Slowly and surely.

Philadelphia, PA