Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Doing the Hard Math

It bites to be poor. We sat over dinner with a friend last night who lives on $1,200 a month. If your head calculator is slow to figure such meager dollars after pondering numbers like $700-billion for the last six weeks...we're talking about an annual income of $14,400. Our friend has two children: a three year-old daughter and a three week-old daughter. He hopes to have custody of the girls soon. Without custody of the children, he is living well above the 2008 poverty level for one person ($10,400). If he becomes full-time caregiver for one of his daughters, he is still above poverty level. If he has custody of both girls, he begins to qualify for programs that use poverty levels for "vetting" participants. Of course he can't receive a pay increase, or work overtime. And he has two more mouths to feed, two more little bodies to clothe, and 52-weeks of daycare to provide. Wow. Do you know how much $1,200 a month is and what it affords? Here is our friend's financial picture:
  • $200/month rent. He's very lucky to currently share a rental with family members. Stirring two small children into the mix is sure to increase stress in the household. Who knows what's next?
  • $150/month student loan payment. This is for a tech program he didn't finish. It will cost him this auto-withdrawal payment every month for 15 years. Beware of these programs, they seem to be circling the economically disadvantaged.
  • $116/month legal debt. This is for past life run-ins with the law. The payment disappears if it is paid in full by September 2009. If it's not paid in full, there will be jail time and more fines for not paying the fines. This is a demoralizing cycle. Time in jail = time off work = no job to be found after jail time is served = more desperation.
  • $35/month car insurance. Liability insurance is required under Texas law.
  • $345/month car payment. This pays for a 13-year-old car with AC that doesn't work. The car was financed at one of those "No Credit, No Problem!" places. I probably don't need to say much more about this except these people are predators. Poor people are their prey. Our friend needs a car to get to his construction job. The location changes regularly. Public transportation in the area of town he can afford to live in is very hard to access. And, he cannot save money to pay cash for a car he can afford. He is at the mercy of a loan shark.
His employer currently offers a health care plan, and our friend's coverage is free under the plan. His daughters cost him about $2 each paycheck. If they actually have to go to the doctor, of course, the deductible is huge and the cost of medical care is almost prohibitive. So they wait until medical issues are emergencies, and they go to the ER. Bottom line: After basic commitments are met (remember his rent/utilities situation is a dream come true), our friend has $354 a month to put gas in his car, food on his table, diapers on his babies, and to be ready for anything, say, a tube of hydrocortosone cream for the poison ivy he picked up on the construction site ($6 at Walgreens). Never mind paying for anything remotely entertaining. Oh, except cigarettes...which run him about $50/month. Sure - he could give up smoking, and should. But, given the stress he's under and his history of anger issues and the fact that he can't afford to go to a movie, eat a dinner in a restaurant, pay a cable TV subscription - a $1.67 a day habit is probably the cheapest entertainment available. So, now we're down to $304 "disposable" income a month. Let's go ahead and factor in a tank of gas every 10 days for that 1995 beast. There goes $150. Now we're down to $154 for groceries and pampers. Oh...and there's the phone. Doesn't everyone need basic phone service so those basic human service agencies can get in touch with you if they ever have good news for you? $40/month. Now we have $114 for groceries and pampers and daycare and things unexpected. $28.50 a week. People like our friend are what we refer to as "the working poor"...and they typically fall through the cracks of every system. They certainly have been overlooked by our politicians this year. All of the campaign trail talk has been about the Middle Class...the Main Street Americans...the Joes from every walk of sustainable-income life imaginable (Joe the Plumber, Joe the Carpenter, Joe the Teacher, Joe the Nurse, Joe the Chocolate-Maker). What are we going to do about Pete the Poor? Pulitzer prize winning author David Shipler wrote a book a few years ago entitled, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. Here's an excerpt from the book's introduction: Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. Their wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives, and their lives, in turn, hold them back. The term by which they are usually described, ‘working poor,’ should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America. Thirty-million people in this country are working poor. I have signed a petition at, asking both Senator McCain and Senator Obama to keep their eyes on the enormously critical issue of global poverty. I invite you to do the same. I have also written to my candidate reminding him that the American dream is still nothing but a pipe dream for millions of folks in the United States. While our friend falls asleep each night staring at the financial worksheet posted on his bedroom wall, and praying for a miracle...I fall asleep on my pillow-top mattress, in my warm home, on my well-kept street, in my Homestead Tax Exempt county...mostly praying that nothing ever changes. Because it really bites to be poor. And I am not poor. What do we do, my peace loving friends?

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