Too Poor, and not Poor Enough

In December, 1994, we signed the loan papers to buy our house.  It had been a bumpy road to get that loan.  When I’d called our bank, the loan officer there had asked a few screening questions.  Yes, we had steady jobs.  No, we weren’t deep in debt.  I hit a brick wall when he asked the amount of my husband’s and my combined income.  I told him the number, and he said, “No, I mean combined income, what you two make together.”  I answered, “That IS our combined income.”  There was a short silence, and then the banker came back with, “Oh.  Well, then, I’m sorry, but we can’t help you.”  I got the same answer from the other banks I tried.  At that time, I was working as an administrative assistant in a hotel (hotels are notorious for low salaries), and my husband Rick was working as a trash compactor repairman at a tiny family business.  In the end, Rick’s grandmother helped with the down payment, our realtor helped us get a 30-year loan through FHA, and we signed up with a mortgage company.  Interest rates then were astronomical compared with today’s rates, and we were slated to end up paying the mortgage company more than three times the price of the house over the life of the loan.  It was a daunting number when we put our signatures on half a ream of paperwork.  As it turned out, after we refinanced three times, we made the final payment less than 18 years from that first signature.  And our house was very modestly priced.  In fact, at one point when I worked for a big accounting firm, and my salary was a bit better, we ended up owing a small amount at tax time.  When I consulted with one of the federal tax guys, he told me that we should have “more house, more debt, and more expenses,” considering our incomes.  In other words, we were living too much within our means, according to how the tax codes are calculated, the tax guy said.  We just shook our heads, because, considering that we still didn’t make very much money, what else could we do except live frugally?  So we reduced our exemptions to zero, and had extra tax money taken out of our wages.

But to go back to that first loan, without the help from Rick’s family, it would simply have been impossible for us to have saved enough for the down payment that was required in those days.  We might not ever have been able to buy a house unless both of us had taken on additional part-time jobs.  And yet, within a decade after we moved in, the housing bubble was in full swing, and people with our salaries were buying McMansions.  It wasn’t unusual for their mortgage payments to be so high, they couldn’t afford furniture, but they could still live in homes with many times the square footage we had, in much more upscale communities.  No down payments necessary, and low, low, low initial interest rates, a fraction of our starting rate.  However, as we saw in 2008 and thereafter, the bottom dropped out of the market, and thousands upon thousands of those homeowners who’d bought enormous houses on blue-collar salaries ended up in dire straits.  Our county, in fact, had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.  When once Rick and I had been too poor to even get a loan, we ended up being in a stable situation, paying off our small house in our run-down, not-yet-gentrified neighborhood a couple miles outside the city center.  Countless others didn’t fare as well; they were now “too poor” to afford the houses they’d bought, and had to manage any way they could, often selling at huge losses and ending up deep in debt.

Over the years, our combined salaries inched up, but never got within shouting distance of the six-figure range.  We stayed in our house and spent years rehabbing and refurbishing, doing almost all of the work ourselves — it had needed an enormous amount of TLC when we’d moved in.  We’ve estimated that we’ve put considerably more back into the house than we paid for it.  We still watched our money.  We never bought new cars, for instance, or much in the way of toys.  When one 14- or 15-year-old van would give up the ghost, we’d quietly pay cash for a “new” 10-year-old model.  Our small, used motorhome has been our one indulgence, but we didn’t go into debt over it. 

Fast forward to the present day.  In a sense, we’re almost back in the same situation as we were when we bought the house.  I lost my job in 2019 and couldn’t land another one, so I had to file for Social Security last year at 62, making me officially retired, but of course, I don’t have the benefit of Medicare.  Rick doesn’t get healthcare insurance through his job, so we had to turn to the ACA to get insurance.  Incidentally, I’ve yet to encounter anyone in healthcare administration who knows what the ACA is.  I keep having to explain that it’s otherwise known as Obamacare or insurance through the healthcare marketplace.  But I digress.  This insurance is more expensive than my employer-provided insurance was, and covers MUCH less, with an exorbitant deductible.  “Affordable care”?  NOT!

Because Rick is finally, after 10 years with his current employer, making a decent wage for a local truck driver, we’re managing to survive so far without too many cutbacks.  We won’t be taking a cruise or destination vacation anytime soon, but we’re still afloat.  Paying off the house in 2012 is what has saved us.  Having a mortgage payment would make things dicey, for sure.  Again, we’re not profligate:  I have a 401(k) to call on in a few years, and we have a tiny savings account, but as Rick has no pension or other plan through his job, we’re not exactly going to be rolling in dough when he retires.

Enter my cataract surgeries.  The insurance we have will pay 60% of charges, after that huge deductible and a high out-of-pocket cap.  As we can’t just ante up $10K out of petty cash, I applied for a discount with the hospital system.  After duly submitting a stack of paperwork — although none, surprisingly, to document our monthly expenses — I was turned down.  When I questioned that decision, I was told that our income is too high.  I expressed disbelief that our combined income, limited as it is again, is too much to qualify for any assistance.  At one point, I asked how bad our situation would have to be before we’d be accepted (actually, “begging in the street,” was the phrase I used, then apologized) and I got the vague answer that if our income dropped, or we could no longer get insurance, then we could re-apply.  I realize that the charges I’m looking at are a tiny fraction of those that many other people must face, but to me, that’s a big chunk of change, and as someone who hates debt with a passion, I’m uneasy about all of this, even though I would assume I’ll be able to work out a payment system with the hospital, and everything will be OK in the end.

I’ve told this tale, with all the personal information, by way of illustrating what I see as an invisible segment of our population.  Politicians and pundits continually talk about the poor, and there are indeed some, though certainly not enough, measures in place to aid those who are truly poverty stricken.  But the paycheck-to-paycheck people who work hard and make ends meet, albeit barely, are overlooked.  Bernie Sanders has tried to implement policies that would help those who are “one broken water heater” away from not paying the bills, but not much assistance has been forthcoming thus far.  Fortunately, people with families are faring a little better these days due to the new monthly allowance for children, but there are still untold numbers of Americans who can’t afford any extra expenses, but who nevertheless fall just above an arbitrary line that disqualifies them for one program or another.  It’s a bizarre instance of too much being not enough.  The government and the institutions are effectively saying, “Be glad you aren’t homeless or eating mac ‘n’ cheese every night.  Be grateful you can keep the lights on.”  And, of course, those of us in this boat are grateful, but we also know that we have no safety net in our current status.  If we get to the point that we can’t meet expenses and we ARE destitute, then there will be more remedies available.  Otherwise, we’re continually walking a tightrope, and the people in charge take no notice.

12 thoughts on “Too Poor, and not Poor Enough

  1. it is a challenge for me to feel sympathy for even the homeless in the US living out of their cars when one has spent her entire adult life living, working, and raising children in egregiously depauperate 3rd- and 4th-world countries, where 3/4ths of the populace sleep at night on the floors of jungles or in tiny kubos [hutments] constructed of palm fronds and sticks, bed-down on wet coastal sands, raise their children under bridges, gather their food from trash tips, garner what exiguous belongings they have from sewers and landfills, and have not so much as a centimo for sending their children to school, never mind to a hospital when they are ill. when they are ill, they simply die. that’s it.

    apologies for commenting here, denise, recognizing how diametrically divaricated the regnant dystopia surrounding my family has been from your consociate americans, even the most destitute druggies and drunks in the US. my perspective is so dissimilar from the zeitgeists of your empathic readers that my comments are nescient, inappropriate, and irrelevant in the context of your elucubrating narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thinking more about your comment, Jeanie. Admittedly, poverty in the U.S. doesn’t begin to be as dire a situation as in undeveloped countries.

      That said, in the U.S., there’s a layer of truly destitute people, those being the homeless, who carry the fear every day that there might not be a safe place to sleep or enough food that can be scrounged. Then there’s a much larger layer (some estimates put it at 40% of the population), which carries the fear every day that they might end up in that bottom layer, fearing there might not be shelter or food. One unfortunate circumstance might make the difference. Obviously, it’s better to be in the latter layer than in the former, but living on the edge ain’t no picnic, either.


  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Denise.

    The system is designed to extract money from the working classes and funnel it upwards to the richest among us. That’s why you don’t “qualify” at that hospital.

    At the same time, you’re supposed to thank Obama and the Dems for the wonderful ACA.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The Poor always have to pay more in the Capitalist system.

    That’s one of the reasons the Christ, out of all human types and groups, singled out the rich saying ‘hardly ever will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven and many other similar Biblical admonitions.

    He didn’t exclude them. He knows they love and serve money more than they love God and the People and make their choices accordingly.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Btw, Denise, I exchanged a few personal email with directly with Barofsky urging him to enter the Public Domain again, but he definitely isn’t interested.

      From the last ZOOM interview from his Condo in New York and current Employment Position, in the end, he did get a “Golden Handshake”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Denise, The US & Canadian Economies are so integrated like the US-China Economy, Canadians won’t be watching from afar. It will be all around us and the World when there will be Hell to pay!.

    It was recorded for Posterity by The Kansas City Times on September 13, 1976, quoting me, ““He came to town for the Republican National Convention and will stay until the election in November TO DO GOD’S BIDDING: To tell the World, from Kansas City, this country has been found wanting and its days are numbered […] He gestured toward a gleaming church dome. “The gold dome is the symbol of BABYLON,” he said.” […] He wanted to bring to the Public’s attention an “idea being put out subtly and deceptively” by the government that we have to get prepared for a War with Russia.”

    That 1976 FUTURE is NOW with the Revelation of the details GENERALLY unfolding in the spirit of the letter.
    The World is waking up to see Americans may hasten “its days are numbered” part of the 1976 Vision, and waits with bated breath.

    With the benefit of 44 years hindsight, the last 4-1/2 years of Military, FBI and Intelligence “experts” on TV constantly, unanimously, demonizing Putin and Russia, the People have been prepared. No alternate POV is allowed by the MSN, Propagandists for the US Military-Industrial Complex and US Full Spectrum Dominance of the World

    Few will recognize “this country has been found wanting and its days are numbered” as the 1st 2 parts of the 3 part Writing on the Wall from Daniel 5 in the Bible.

    The whole World saw the Biblical Writing on the Wall for the 1st Time at the same Time, in the last months of 8 years of Republicanomics of Tax cuts for the rich, while fighting 2 Foreign Wars on BORROWED money, with the Global Financial Meltdown-Economic Pearl Harbour of 2008.
    It wasn’t recognized as such, ignored, and the US and the World continued with it’s profligate ways without undertaking any meaningful reform.

    The rich at the top of our Pyramid System are getting richer, and the increasing numbers of the poor at the bottom are getting poorer.
    Trump has followed those same Republicanonomics on steroids.

    For those who don’t know the ‘Writing on the Wall’ record, the king of BABYLON threw a feast for 1000 of the Elite of the kingdom, and they praised the “gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood and stone.”
    In other words, from then to now, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ and the ELITE are still the ELITE

    It can no longer be ignored with COVID-19.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “‘Twas ever thus,” as you say. There does seem to be an inevitability to this downward spiral.

      Certainly, the Canadian economy is closely interlinked with that of the U.S., so the crash will have a big effect on you, as in 2008. On the other hand, I don’t see signs that your government is sinking into fascism.


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