Have you ever sat down to do your finances, and come up with a negative number?
It’s not a fun experience. And certainly not one I’m used to.
It’s been a very hectic and exciting year for me. Two days before the close of 2007, I was blessed with the presence of a beautiful baby girl. I had never imagined being a single parent before- hell, I’d never even held a baby before I picked my daughter up, writhing and screaming and covered in gunk- but here I was.
And I never gave it a second thought. Here’s why:
Things were stressful, but managable. Having a baby is expensive. This was compounded by the fact that, when she was at 26 weeks’ gestation, my daughter’s mother was hospitalized because she was leaking amniotic fluid. After two weeks and 20-some odd thousand dollars, she left the hospital- on strict bed rest, of course. Thank God for her health insurance, which parsed the bill down to a “measly” $5,000. Tacking on another $1,500 for the c-section and birth seemed downright thrifty comparatively.
Of course, prior to my daughter’s arrival, I had been a full-time student, in pursuit of a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. I just had to finish the spring semester, and I’d be ready for clinicals. But trying to juggle the committments of being a full-time student, employee, and parent was beyond daunting. I came to the conclusion that I’d have to abandon my education, and instead relegate myself to being an assistant store manager at The Home Depot for the rest of my life. Thankfully, my mother refused to let me quit school. She (her two part-time jobs notwithstanding) promised she would watch the baby when I was unable to. It was such that we managed to juggle full-time work, school, and taking care of that beautiful baby girl.
And in-between, life happened. My daughter grew by leaps and bounds; the time seemed to fly by. I demanded she stop growing, but, as I fear will be a trend that continues for the rest of my life, my daughter promptly ignored my demands and instead proceded to wrap me around her tiny fingers. I leveraged our new financial strain with some aplomb; not helping was the sudden $2,000 needed to keep my eight-year old car running, the miscellaneous and expensive items babies seem to consume in prodigious amounts, or the medical bills that kept piling up. For instance, did you know that some of the doctors that worked on my daughter and her mother were in-network, and some were out? Same hospital, same day, same time- seemingly no rhyme or reason. And so new bills seemed to appear every day; in fact, I received another one less than a week ago. The baby went to the nursery one night? A random doctor showed up in the delivery room? The lactation consultant? The baby being charged for room and board separate from her mother (they were two people, you see, so they needed to charge both of them)? Yep. Separate bills, not covered to some degree or another.
I started to get concerned. If I kept my education on track, I’d start nursing clinicals in the fall. Clinicals mean up to twenty hours a week (and more as things ramp up) at school, in the hospital, in the practice labs- not counting homework, of course- which meant I’d have to leave my job. Unfortunately, the policy at The Home Depot for managers is Up or Out- there is no stepping down. I had already been fortunate they were “gracious” enough to allow me to continue to go to school in the interim, as the employment policy clearly stated it was at the company’s sole discretion as to whether or not they would allow me to attend school (managers are required to have a 24/7/365 availability, which I don’t hold against them; they have a business to run). I started to wonder how I would make all the disparate numbers add up when the time came to it. Even moreso because my daughter’s mother was unemployed during most of this time; the financial burden for the forementioned bills slipped disproportionately to me.
Unexpectedly, in April, I was admitted to a very prestigious, nationally well-known college two hours away; I had applied a few weeks before my daughter was born, never seriously thinking I would be admitted. People with 3.95 GPAs frequently got rejected, and mine hovered somewhere around 3.25. With the baby weighing heavily on my mind and taxing my free time, it had slipped another tenth of a point during the spring semester, down to about 3.15. Imagine my breathless surprise and chagrin when I saw the acceptance note. But this was almost immediately replaced by a now mangnified worry about finances, and making ends meet. This was the chance of a lifetime, truly! But it looked very realistically like I would have to give it up.
So I sat down with a calculator one evening, and did nothing but crunch numbers, model income flow, expenses, wargame scenario after scenario, trying to make the numbers add up. Finally, I came up with an answer- I could attend this dream school, but it would come with a high cost. Leveraging some of the bills on my credit card, leaning heavily on student financial aid, and a little bit of crossing my fingers and hoping I could find a decent job and inexpensive childcare. What’s more is that after leaving my job to move, I’d lose health insurance for my daughter and I, and wouldn’t be able to afford supplemental coverage for either of us until the school’s health insurance kicked in two months later. I couldn’t have cared less that I’d have no coverage, but to gamble no coverage on my then six-month old daughter for two months? It was heart-wrenching.
So we moved. And things seemed to be going better for awhile. I managed to find a halfway decent job; it only paid eight bucks an hour, but it was a quarter mile from home, and flexible enough with my schedule I wouldn’t need a babysitter until school started. My daughter’s mother found a very good job working for the local natural food supermarket. The baby continued to grow, and I started to see other babies when we went out and about that were smaller than my daughter, which any parents reading this will know is a very emotional moment. I wondered how much I’d miss of her growing up being gone so much.
The summer ended more quickly than I could almost believe. I found a reliable babysitter who was unbelivably inexpensive (only $150 a week, which is a bargain for child care), and managed to actually have a spot open for my daughter. I got my financial aid award notices; I spent another evening doing the math, and found everything checked out. We would be just getting by, but we would be getting by, which was the most important part.
Alas, it was not to last. Mr. Murphy, perhaps, got wind of the fragile balance that were my finances, and decided to work his magic on them. You know Mr. Murphy, right? “Whatever can go wrong- will.”
While this school is prestigious, it is also expensive. I got a financial aid package second to none; about eighteen grand in scholarships and loans to get me through the 2008/2009 school year. But things add up quickly. $4,500 a semester for tuition, almost a thousand for books. All students are required to have health insurance, and the combined yearly cost for my daughter and I ended up being about $4,500. So that left me about $4500, along with what I made working, for everything else- rent, utilities, diapers, formula, groceries, childcare, et cetera. As awesome of a financial package that it was, as you can see, it still made things tough. Unfortunately, they calculate your financial need based off of you last tax return, this year’s financial strains nonetheless. But the numbers came out, when I figured expenses- it was a fragile balance I’d found myself in, but it was a balance nonetheless.
And then my daughter got a yeast infection while she was uninsured. This ended up costing me a couple hundred dollars out of pocket; not bad, considering. The receptionist suggest I look into SCHIP, which I did, and found out that the $26,000 I’d made the previous year was just too damn much. Ditto with child care assistance (Seems I’d been almost been too financially responsible- I had a healthy 401(k) I’d started when I was 19, a Roth IRA, a life insurance policy that almost had enough put into it to pay itself on the dividends). And as previously mentioned, the medical bills from my daughter’s birth continued to arrive; a thousand dollars’ worth between when I’d paid the hospital four months previously and now. Then the battery in the car died; then my father ended up in the hospital, requiring the baby and I to fly to Texas on a day’s notice; then my car insurance premium jumped an extra four hundred dollars a year from moving; then my daughter’s mother goes to the dentist and finds out she has six cavities, that went untreated because she was pregnant, and have not gotten far worse; then… it just kept coming. A new crisis would emerge, and I’d resolve it just in time to watch another materialize.
And it only got worse.
Given the economic turmoil, people are spending less money- surprising, huh?- and since I’m a part time employee at a retail store, I came in to work one day to find I’d been scheduled a whopping five hours the following week. Not even enough, afer taxes, to pay my babysitter a tip. But there’s still rent to pay, there’s still utilities, I still have to put food on the table. Immediately, I slashed anything in the budget I deemed unnecessary, even potentially so. I had a heart to heart with my daughter’s mother. While we were fairly civil with each other, we were living separately, which didn’t hurt the ability to remain so. But the numbers didn’t lie; we couldn’t continue to afford living separately, even in the meager apartments we were currently living in. So she moved in with us- thankfully, in a college town, it’s not hard to re-lease an apartment. But I only have a two-bedroom apartment, one of which is my daughter’s; and so I moved onto the couch.
But the hits kept coming. The most recent, and heart-wrenching, one is that I can’t afford to pay for health insurance for my baby girl. Well, okay, I guess I get to choose between that and putting food on the table and diapers on her butt. But what kind of fucking choice is that? I tried to kill my health insurance, only to be told I’d be kicked out of school if I did that. I feel like a failure as a parent; I can’t even sacrifice my own well-being to provide for my daughters’.
I’ve never been well-off. Not in my childhood, and not in my working life. But I’ve been comfortable, for the most part, and happy. There was a few times when I was young that our family wad in dire economic straights- I remember having nightly “popcorn parties” for a week when I was four, which I thought was incredibly fun, not realizing it was actually dinner. But I was too young to understand that, and by the time I would’ve been able to recognize those things, I didn’t have to worry about them. I mean, I’ve never had the ability to spend money whenever I wanted to, but that’s never bothered me. But I’ve never had to choose between health insurance and groceries before. And I can’t describe what it’s like to look in the refrigerator, and see it nearly empty- and know you can’t go buy more food, not yet, not until Friday; to crunch the numbers and see them come out negative, no matter how many things you cut; to watch your little girl start to crawl and explore and smile up at you, and the only thing you can do is hope and pray that she doesn’t get sick, that you can keep providing for her.
Even worse for me is the memory of times not that long ago, when I would hear stories like mine and shrug. It was all so distant – one of those, “hey, it’ll never happen to me” things. I grew up as a dumb ‘ole Iowa farmboy, with the notion instilled in my by my father that hard work and perseverence can bring you through anything. My father was a staunch Republican, and had a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, stop whining and get to work” attitude, which I quickly picked up and made my own. He was the product of the Great Depression and World War Two; both of his parents had to endure the full-force those turbulent times to an extent I can’t even imagine. Their attitude was passed on to my father, who passed it on to me. I admit now, with some chagrin, I railed long and hard against social programs like welfare. Give me a break- get out there and get a job, will ya? Why should I have to pay my taxes just so you can sit around and be lazy? Pull your self up by your bootstraps! What, having more babies to collect more welfare? Figures. It seems God has quite the sense of humor.
So, I have to watch every single penny I spend. I’ve had to cash in my 401(k), my Roth, cash out my life insurance (of which a ridiculous amount of all three went to the Feds in taxes); I leveraged as much as I could take out in Stafford loans; scoured the house looking for things to sell- and those are just the big things. No condiments on my food, they’re an unnecessary expense; anytime the baby doesn’t suck down every ounce of formula, it goes in the fridge, no matter what; shopping is done around coupons; things like that. None of those small things are a big deal to me- they’re not hard to accomplish. Maybe a little annoying sometimes… but those changes are what have made me able to still put my daughter in diapers, buy her food, put gasoline in my car to get me to work and school. And now, with the economic crisis, I can’t get more loans- there’s no more money to give out. Nada. Zip. I’ve appealed to the University to re-evaluate my income level, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to do so and get me more money. So I’m left with few options, and I’m not sure how I’ll make ends meet. I can see how much more credit they’ll give me on my credit card. I can scrounge the house and see what I can try to sell; I’m looking for another job (or two or three), but as the semester progresses, Nursing clinicals take up more and more of my time. I have to go back for clinical skills pratice, weekend hospital rounds, not to mention general studying and homework- which is hard to do when your daughter has just learned how to crawl around and get into eve- OH MY GOD, SWEETHEART, GET AWAY FROM THE TOLIET BOWL!
So, I’m going to have to figure out a way to make things work. Give up car insurance, even though it’s illegal in Virginia to drive without it. Leverage as much on my credit cards as I can. Not much else to do – I’ve cut everything else to the bone. The only things left are rent, electricity, groceries… and those just aren’t an option.
The worst part of this is that I don’t have things that bad. It’s bad to me, certainly- the worst I’ve ever experienced economic hardship in my life. But there are so many people who have it worse than me. And this realization have truly changed my outlook on life and politics- permanently. Think about how different this story would’ve been with some sort of universal health insurance on my side. Or some assistance with nine grand a year in tuition? Or a safety net, without holes, for my daughter? Some help with childcare expenses? Good Lord, think if just one of those things had been available to me? Something! How many more stories are like mine? How many people would’ve made things work if they just had something help them?
The Republicans love to paint programs that would’ve helped me avoid this as the “breakdown of personal responsibility”, or to the benefit of “welfare queens” and people “too lazy to work” – and, yeah, there’s probably a few of those people out there. But I think the vast majority of cases are like mine. I can’t explain the level of shame and heartbreak this situation has caused me. Living in debt, not knowing how to make ends meet, is like living in constant twilight. I’d do anything, and am doing everything I can, to make ends meet, to make everything work. It makes me feel like a failure- I can’t provide for my family no matter how hard I work to make it happen. So I’m faced with an nearly untenable situation with very few answers, and no good ones. I could quit school and go back to work for Home Depot. I could send my daughter and her mother back to Wisconsin to live with her parents. I could give up my family or give up my future – but at least I’ll have been “personally responsible,” right?
I don’t know what the answer for me is right now. I haven’t found one yet. But I sure as hell know what the right choice is on November 4th.