Hard times

June 17, 2008

—Op-Ed by Calvin Luther Martin

Visa card

Twenty dollars.  That’s all she had in the house.  Twenty for her family of five children and husband.  She and her husband were laid off in late fall, when new home construction tanked.  Now the unemployment checks are about to run out, and today they are down to their last twenty.

This story is not unique.  My gut tells me it’s becoming common throughout the North Country.  People willing and able to work are either laid off, are under-employed, or are fully employed but their modest wages lag more and more behind expenses.  (Notice that I have not factored in the elderly and disabled.)

Gasoline.  Fuel oil.  Kerosene.  Propane.  Firewood.  Groceries.  Clothing.  Appliances.  Rent.  Frankly, the cost of every necessity.  Five more months and we’re into mid-November.  The start of winter.  Not so fast:  Is last winter’s fuel bill paid off?  How about the electricity bill?  (I’m told National Grid is shutting off more and more service, owing to delinquent accounts.)  Phone bill?  Tax bill?  Water and sewer bill?  Credit card bill (at 30% interest)?

Dangerous temperatures are closer than five months away.  From now till Labor Day there doubtless will be stretches of brutally hot, humid days.  Apartments and mobile homes turn into ovens.  The elderly and disabled not infrequently die.  Not here, perhaps.  Not yet, maybe.  But we are not immune to this, as global weather gyrates crazily.

A slow motion train wreck unfolds here in the North Country.  Consider these letters, from ten different North Country households:

Letter #1:  I am a single mother with a 9-year-old boy. We lived this past winter without any heat at all. Fortunately someone gave me an old wood stove.  I had to hook it up to an old/unused chimney we had in the kitchen. I couldn’t even afford a chimney liner (the price of liners went up with the price of fuel). To stay warm at night my son and I would pull off all the pillows from the couch and pile them on the kitchen floor.  I’d hang a blanket from the kitchen doorway and we’d sleep right there on the floor. By February we ran out of wood and I burned my mother’s dining room furniture. I have no oil for hot water. We boil our water on the stove and pour it in the tub.

Letter #2:  Yesterday I paid for our latest home heating fuel delivery: $1,100.  I also paid my $2,000+ credit card balance, much of which bought gas and groceries for the month.  My husband and I are very nervous about what will happen to us when we are old.  Although we have three jobs between us and participate in 403B retirement plans, we have not saved enough for a realistic post-work life if we survive to our life expectancy…. We have always lived frugally. We buy used cars and store-brand groceries, recycle everything, walk or carpool when possible and plastic our windows each fall. Even so, if/when our son decides to attend college, we will be in deep debt at age 65.  (P.S. Please don’t use my name. I live in a small town, and this is so embarrassing.)

Letter #3:  I have to say that this is the toughest year, financially, that I have ever experienced in my 41 years on this earth.  I have what used to be considered a decent job, I work hard, pinch my pennies, but the pennies have all but dried up. I am thankful that my employer understands that many of us cannot afford to drive to work 5 days a week. Instead, I work three 15 hour days. I have taken odd jobs to try to make ends meet. This winter, after keeping the heat just high enough to keep my pipes from bursting (the bedrooms are not heated and never got above 30 degrees), I began selling off my woodworking tools, snowblower (pennies on the dollar), and furniture that had been handed down in my family from the early 1800s, just to keep the heat on. Today I am sad, broken, and very discouraged. I am thankful that the winter cold is behind us for a while, but now gas prices are rising yet again. I just can’t keep up.

Letter #4:  I am 55 years old and worse off than my adult children. I have worked since age 16. I don’t live from paycheck to paycheck, I live day to day. I can only afford to fill my gas tank on my payday thereafter, I put $5, $10 whatever that I can. I cannot afford to buy the food items that I would. I am riding around daily to and from work with a quarter of a tank of gas. This is very scary as I can see myself working until the day that I die. I do not have a savings, no credit cards and my only resources are thru my employment. I have to drive to work as there are no buses from my residence to work. I don’t know how much longer I can do this…. I am concerned as gas prices climb daily. I am just tired, the harder that I work the harder it gets, I work 12 to 14 hours daily and it just doesn’t help.

Letter #5:  I am a working mother of two young children. I currently pay on average around $80 a week for gas so that I can go to work. I see the effects of the gas increase at the grocery stores and at the department stores. On average I spend around $150 per week at the grocery store and trust me when I say I don’t buy prime rib—I buy just enough to get us through the week and I can’t afford to make sure we have seven wholesome meals to eat every night of the week—some nights we eat cereal and toast for dinner because that’s all I have…. I just simply cannot afford to live from day to day. I am getting further and further in credit card debt just trying to stay afloat.

Letter #6:  I work in a dental clinic that is also seeing a slowdown. Dentistry is expensive and people are opting not to come to the dentist or not getting the optimal dentistry they need…. One of my patients told me a story yesterday about a food bank in town that is finding it difficult to keep its shelves full. They had a realtor who was a regular contributor. Now she was coming to get food for herself. The cost of food is rising at a tremendous rate.

Letter #7:  I am so frightened for next year, as I struggle daily this year. I drive past the gas stations and see the price go up! Those prices are going up even 10 cents a gallon in one day! What about heating fuel next year? I spent this winter with my heat turned down to 53 degrees, varying it only for a few hours after I returned home from work. I have my master’s degree and am a teacher. I am struggling so hard in my new home. It’s a double wide and I’ve waited 50 years to get my own home. Now, I am worried I won’t be able to keep it as everything else is going up, except my salary, which next year will only go up slightly more than 1 percent. The middle class is no longer the middle class…. I’ve slipped into the lower class after a winter of double heating costs and now these new economic hits. How much more of a hit can people take? The future looks extremely bleak to me. I worry constantly about how I am going to pay my bills.

Letter #8:  As a student and a part-time employee working for just above minimum wage I have found it more and more difficult to survive under these conditions. The drive to school and work require me to use roughly 30 percent of my paycheck just to go where I need to, to make it through my day. When school is in session I am lucky to get about 170 dollars a week and with gas prices at their current all time high I am continually finding myself under hardships because of it. Recently I had to vacate my apartment because I could not afford to pay rent and I am now living out of my car. This too seems like it may not be able to last that much longer because I am encountering difficulties in making my car payment.  I can remember when gas prices were a little over a dollar and I dream about life taking that turn once more. Because of the gas prices I have found nothing but an extremely low budget for food, I was forced out of my home and now I might lose the one thing that is allowing me to continue my schooling and keep going to work—my car.  I am struggling to understand why prices continue to rise and I see no end in sight.

Letter #9:  I am a 31-year-old wife, mother of two…. My husband drives 35 miles to work, that is a one-way trip. He is putting an average of $80 a week into his gas tank. No, he doesn’t drive an SUV or a half-ton work truck. It’s a small pickup truck that he needs as he builds houses. The kicker is that he never puts more than half a tank in, because we can’t afford to fill it. I drive 15 miles one way, and put about $40 a week into my 30-miles-to-the-gallon car. Again, I never fill the tank—ever!  We have even contemplated having my husband quit his job because he isn’t making much more money weekly than he spends on gas! We could move to an area that is closer to our jobs, but because of the market we cannot sell our house fast enough or for a fair price. Meanwhile, my mortgage is behind, we are at risk for foreclosure, and I can’t keep up with my car payments. My parents, both in their 60’s, are back to work so that they can make ends meet, and struggle to come up with enough gas money so they can get to doctor’s appointments. They are opting to close their house up for the winter and stay with my uncle so they don’t have to put oil in their furnace. I can’t tell you how many times we had to fill our little gas tanks with kerosene or diesel because we ran out of oil and couldn’t afford the $380 it would cost us to put a mere 100 gallons in. Needless to say, we are way behind on all of our bills, we are still playing catch up with our winter expenses. People that I know that have never struggled with money are now frequenting our local food shelf [pantry] so they can feed their families staple foods!

Letter #10:  I am a single mother, owning a home, preparing to send a son to college, and working two jobs most of the time. While I am managing to keep my house…, I am falling behind on my bills and have to use my credit card more often for necessities. People say, “Cut back.”  When I look at my bank and credit card statements, I see “gas, groceries, gas, fuel oil, gas, groceries, school-related activities, car maintenance, gas, electricity.” Cut back on what? The occasional pizza between jobs and athletic events? The trip to college to seek financial aid? Clothes for work and school?

There are more of these.  Over 600.  You can read some of them here.

They were sent to US Senator Bernie Sanders from the North Country he represents:  Vermont.  One state over from our North Country.  Pretty much the same economy as ours, similar climate and, I’ll bet, pretty much the same train wreck we’re experiencing in Franklin, Clinton, and St. Lawrence counties and beyond.

Senator Sanders explains how these letters came to pass.  “As gas and oil prices soared and as the nation slipped into recession, I made a request to Vermonters on my e-mail list. I asked them to tell me what was going on in their lives economically. That was it. Frankly, I expected a few dozen replies. I was amazed, therefore, when my office received over 600 responses from all across the state, as well as some from other states. This small booklet contains a few of those letters.”

RiverCityMalone asks you the same question:  tell us what’s going on in your life economically.  Post your response as a comment, below.  You are welcome to sign your name Anonymous or Name Withheld.  You are also welcome to tell a story of hardship about someone you know, so long as the story is genuine and you refrain from using the person’s name.  (Post a picture or PDF, if it adds to your story.)

This is some of the real news in our community.  For people experiencing it, it is nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s difficult and poignant, and it’s a result of a system failure, not a personal failure.  Let me be emphatic about this.

Once we’ve gathered this news let us ponder ways to address it as a community.  But first, we must gather it.  Thank you for your contribution.