Being one of 'them' – the working poor

I was sitting and reading the paper when I saw my name in a headline. OK, not my first or last, but my given name: "the working poor."

Last fall, I was given that name by a helper lady at a charity program, "Don't feel so bad dear. You're one of that new group they call the working poor. [Families] who have education, a home, children, and two working parents, but still can't make ends meet."

Being one of "them," I can tell you that having a catchy moniker doesn't ease the invisible band that tightens around my chest when the mail comes or the phone rings and I know it means a bill I'd love to pay, but can't. I was middle class, but apparently many of us are failing to make the grade.

In fact, quite a number of us have been demoted. America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization, estimates that of the 23.3 million Americans it gave emergency food assistance last year, 40 percent came from households with a working adult.

I am a college graduate and mother of three children, ages 8, 7, and 3. I work part-time as a newspaper reporter. I would work full-time if the cost of childcare balanced against what I could earn here in New Jersey. I've tried. It doesn't. Whenever I can, I also baby-sit for neighbors to earn some additional cash.

My husband, a college grad, commutes over an hour a day to his job as a newspaper designer. He also does odd jobs.

If we are failing to thrive, then how are single-parent households, or those with less education able to cling to the shreds of the American Dream at all? We don't have credit cards, or vacations, or spare cash. We don't have a lifestyle, a drug habit, or a frivolous QVC addiction to keep up. Despite our best efforts, we never pay all the bills on time. Something always comes up to break the bank. A car needs a muffler. Someone gets sick.

The magic number is $900. If any or all the "unexpected expenses" tally to that dollar amount in a month, we're done for. There is always a bill in the hold bin, a juggling act to keep everything running and the wolf from eating the door, knob and all.

At first, I tried to keep this from my husband because I thought it was my fault for not earning enough or being clever enough with coupons. I hid the bills because the times I showed him he became demoralized. But I realized it's not about our budget, it's about the country's. Even before news reports began using the word "recession," they were reporting that wages for millions simply haven't risen as fast as the cost of living.

We live in a nice little $120,000 log home in a minivan-driving, soccer-mom-next-door neighborhood in a pretty little suburban town by a lake. Talking to neighbors, I learned that these women don't work, their husbands pull down higher incomes than we do and yet they, too, struggle with the hold bin and that invisible band squeezing the hope out of their lives. That makes my family the "working poorer," I suppose.

Last year, following a series of bumps – a child with eye problems, dental bills, and repairing the commuting car – I broke down and went to a local charity for assistance: food and money to make the mortgage. I never told my husband. It was too emotionally painful to go and sit in the hard plastic chairs and tell them how much we make – around $55,000 a year combined – and admit that with all that we were "failing to meet our needs."

Now I know that it isn't going for charity that first time that breaks you. It's going back: knowing that what you thought was just a rock in the road was a mountain and you are out of gear.

I had to go back this month. I called to make an appointment. The woman on the other end of the line heard that I'd been there once before and an edge came into her voice. "What makes you think you're in need?" she asked. "The foreclosure notice," I mumbled.

The most articulate and educated person loses the power for speech and reason in these times. In fact, being well spoken is a liability because the "helper lady" feels that this makes you less needy. You're too smart to need help. Helper lady put me on hold and a second woman came on and told me there was no way they could help because we needed too much help. "If you run out of food, call us."

Dial tone.

The sigh I exhaled took my pride and self-esteem with it in one hot rush of humiliation. In retrospect, I think she was afraid to help. I'd seen it when I went there in better times to make donations. Some helpers say hello cheerfully to people who are there to buy in the thrift area, but their faces fall once they learn the person standing before them is "in need." They just shut down and look them up and down and then bark orders like a parent chastening an errant child. I was all set to despair. I was ready to harbor resentment. I was ready to be the Angry Poor.

Then I ran into another volunteer a few days later who asked me to come in to talk about our situation. She and another volunteer met me in the room with a conference table and box of Kleenex. We arranged for weekly food pick-ups that may not cure the mortgage, but will ease the grip on the finances.

Sitting with those two women, one holding my hand and the other reading an inspirational passage to make me richer in spirit if not in pocket, I came to a decision. I'm going to join them in volunteering at the charity office. I'm beyond fear now. I'm going to be the Volunteering Poor. While it won't add to the bank balance, it will increase my self worth. And right now that's more valuable to my family and me.

• Lisa Suhay is a freelance writer and the author of 'Tell Me a Story' and 'Tell Me Another Story,' children's life- lesson fables.

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