Regarding the housing/ income thing … I know exactly what you mean. I don’t know how much John has shared of our marriage story with you, but the (not-so-brief) version is that when we first got married in April 2001, we were both working minimum wage jobs. I was a hostess at a pie restaurant, and he worked at a plant nursery. In June 2001, I learned I was pregnant, and he was laid off that same week due to a workplace injury. We had to move back to Olympia, which meant I had to quit my job at Shari’s. Over the next year, he looked for work and I … well, I was pregnant. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how difficult it is to get hired when you’re pregnant.
So then we had Kidling, and by then John was working at run-of-the-mill retail place (think Walmart or Target). Soon after, he got a job at his current employer. Starting wages meant we received TANF and EBT benefits, in addition to housing aid and WIC. We were still barely scraping by. I looked for work, but with a high school diploma and no long-term work experience (my parents didn’t want me working during high school; I was supposed to be preparing for college. That did not work out in my favor.), the only jobs I could get paid minimum or barely above minimum wage. And childcare, as it turns out, is expensive. If I had gone back to work, my entire paycheck + a portion of John’s would have had to pay for childcare, and we would no longer qualify for any of the aid we were getting.
So we stayed on welfare for about 18 months after Kidling was born. It paid our medical co-pays, put food in our cupboards, helped keep our rent down, and meant that we could afford to put gas in the car and diapers on Kidling’s bum until John was promoted to full time and his wages started going up.
Over the next few years, I was the sahp, doing everything I’d been taught growing up in the LDS church to save money — canning and home-cooking and cleaning and childcare and cloth diapering and sewing/ mending clothing. John worked and (briefly) went to school full-time (a decision we disagreed on, given the nature of the school, but it was grant-funded), sometimes two jobs. In 2005, we bought a house.
When we bought it, the mortgage + taxes + homeowners insurance cost less than our monthly rent. We were really excited. We were doing everything right. We were on our way up. We were finally getting out of the early years of poverty and enjoying financial security.
Then the housing meltdown. Then the motorcycle injury — a car hit John one day when he was riding to work. Then the flood. Turns out, flood insurance does not cover a rental to live in during the time your home is under repair … and it also turns out, we had no family nearby to move in with for months at a time.
I had a brother who was willing to house us overnight, when the house was actually flooding. A friend who let us crash for a month in his basement while John and our motorcycling buddies started the teardown of the flood-damaged floors and walls. But then we had to move into the gutted house and live in it, with space heaters running to keep us warm. And I was working part time and going to college, and John was injured and on disability wages, and we still made too much money to qualify for any sort of welfare aid. I went to the food bank in those months.
As bad as that was, we got past it. Within 6 months, John was back at work, and 6 months later, the house was almost completely repaired. And then it turned out that those grinding months of poverty; of trying to pay for repairs on the house and the mortgage and the $600+ heating bills from using space heaters in an uninsulated house instead of the (flooded) heat pump — those months had a horrible consequence.
Our credit was tanked, the situation didn’t count as a “hardship”, and our mortgage rate skyrocketed. The next thing we knew, we were paying almost double the original mortgage. We started siphoning from John’s retirement just to stay in the house. We applied for hardship reductions, spoke to the housing authorities, visited financial aid counselors, etc. etc. I kept looking for work, but in Centralia work is hard to find — especially work that would pay enough to justify childcare. And for me to work in Olympia, the pay needed to justify childcare and the commute costs.
In the end, I finally convinced John to surrender the house in bankruptcy. It was better to give up that house than mortgage our future.
So I really, really get from a visceral and very emotional place how if feels to buy a house in a good market turned bad. I hope your housing situation has a much better conclusion than ours did.
We lost almost everything to move up to Olympia. We sold our cars, most of our stuff, and surrendered our home. We intentionally and knowingly tanked our credit for the next 7 years. We did all this so we could live comfortably within our means. Now we pay less than $1000 for housing, we don’t have any car payments, and we have no commute costs. When we moved here in 2012, we were living paycheck to paycheck and were often in the red. Since then, we’ve been lucky enough to build some small savings, send me to college, and even help out some loved ones in need.
When I write passionately about poverty and pain and humiliation, I write from the perspective of someone who did everything “right” according to the social mores perpetuated in our society. My husband works full time. We didn’t have more children than we could afford. We owned a home. I was going to college and working part time. We did everything “right,” and we still struggled with poverty. And there were times when we didn’t have anything to eat, because everything had gone to bills and commuting costs, and my deepest wish was that the welfare and food stamp programs had enough money in them to encompass needy families like mine, who were a good $20,000 above the poverty line, but still scraping by.
I remember when we were having our budget assessed by the financial counselor, we admitted (shamefully) that we smoked and had an $8 monthly expense of Netflix. Many other well-intentioned people had told us that if we “really” wanted to improve our financial situation, we would cancel expenses like Netflix or smoking or ever buying alcohol. Money, many people told us knowingly, was for bills and food, and that was all.
So I was ridiculously, brought-to-tears grateful by the response of the financial counselor. He looked at us compassionately and said, “Everyone deserves some way to relax. $8 a month isn’t going to even put a dent in your debt … but it will help you take your mind off it for an afternoon. Do what you gotta do.”
It’s funny. After we moved up here and stabilized financially, that’s when we quit smoking. Before, we smoked because we couldn’t afford date nights or family activities, and smoking was an excuse to step outside and get a 15 min break from the kid and some adult-only conversation. But after we moved up here and filed bankruptcy and stabilized our finances, we didn’t need that. Now we go to movies and fairs and festivals and on long drives and short day trips together. We have regular date nights and family time.
So all of this together sort of coalesces to explain why I feel like limiting the choices of the many because of the behavior of the few is damaging … not only to those who meet the Federal guidelines for poverty, but for all those families who need government aid and never even come close to qualifying because we’ve so gutted and de-funded the system.