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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

On The Brink

By Yael Goldman | Local News

More Families Facing Financial Disaster, Hiding Struggles From Neighbors and Friends

SARATOGA COUNTY – Through combinations of job loss or reduced hours, and increasing energy bills, interest rates and living expenses, previously secure and comfortable families have found financial instability faster than ever thought possible. Across Saratoga County, there is a growing population of middle-class families that are quietly on the verge of homelessness. They are newly impoverished, and they are facing a unique set of challenges.

As one local put it, “I don’t know how to be poor.”

November is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month, a campaign traditionally associated with a low-income population that is grouped together by the perception of what it means to struggle financially.

Some consider poverty a lifestyle – one that many on the outside of the low-income bracket feel insulated from by their educational or professional status.

But how many of us living in good neighborhoods are a few paychecks away from financial crisis? How many of our neighbors are teetering on the edge of homelessness, or struggling to provide healthy meals for their children? How many are too ashamed to ask for help?

In this unstable economy, there’s no solid line.

Over the next few weeks I will explore the challenges of middle-class families that are dealing with these difficult and often stigmatizing issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the New York State unemployment rate is currently 8 percent – twice the unemployment rate in 2001. Saratoga County’s unemployment rate is a relatively low 6.1 percent compared to other New York counties and other areas across the country. Yet these statistics do not take into account those whose unemployment benefits have run out, or who remain employed while their hours are reduced and benefits cut. Formerly middle-class people, lost in the gray area of not qualifying for public assistance yet unable to make ends meet, represent a whole new demographic.
Many of those affected by the recent economic downturn are unaware of the local resources available to help them through a tough time. Often, they are ashamed to ask for help.

Jeff, a 43-year-old computer programmer and Saratoga County resident, recently lost his job due to company layoffs. This is his first experience with not having enough money to meet his family’s basic needs.

“I’ve never been rich, but I never thought of myself as poor. We were middle class. My son has nice toys and clothes. We live in a nice house,” he said. “I don’t know what to do, and my biggest fear is other people finding out just how bad it is for us now.”

When asked about local resources, Jeff stated “I don’t feel like I should accept help from the community. I used to donate to those places. It’s not about pride exactly, but it’s like I’d have to admit I failed, [and] let my family down. I’m afraid my son will find out we signed him up for reduced price lunches at school. What would he think?”

A similar experience has affected Kate, a mid-50s local who was nearing retirement when she was laid off. She and her husband are deeply concerned about the impact their financial trouble will have on their public image.
“I’ve worked my whole life, [and have] always paid bills on time. We saved, invested, did all the right things,” she said.
Now Kate is finding herself in a “financial no man’s land.”

“I don’t qualify for food stamps or other aid, but we can’t make ends meet either. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” she said.

Kate and her husband have cut expenses like phone and Internet service and deferred maintenance on their home and cars. Her husband, a small business owner, recently had to reduce his hours due to the poor economy. Despite their troubles, the couple is afraid to seek help from their neighbors. When asked if she would access local assistance, Kate stated “My husband is a professional, and depends on his standing in the community. We can’t let neighbors know we’re financially hurt. It could have a negative impact on his business.”

A similar story: County resident Bethany, a 30-year-old mother of three, does not qualify for rental assistance or other benefits, but still finds it difficult to adjust to living on half her former salary. Unemployed since July, her biggest concern is the impact the situation will have on her children. She is behind on her utility bills, and recently cashed in her retirement fund to buy groceries and school clothes for her kids.

“I’d go to the food pantry if we absolutely had to, but I’d be afraid someone I know would see me, and I think other people are worse off than we are. They need those services more,” she said.

Bethany has been eating dinner at her parents’ house almost every night, to cut down on the grocery bill.

For these three families, the prospects for recapturing financial stability mimic the dismal job market.

These days, unemployment tends to last longer than it did 10 years ago, and many people are out of work for two years despite actively searching for employment. It doesn’t help that the market has drastically changed.

Kate recently spent two hours filling out a bank teller application online, only to be informed at the end of the lengthy process that she did not fit the correct “profile” for the position.

 “What does that even mean?” said Kate. “The job market is totally different now. I have 30 years of work history and a professional degree.

She said most jobseekers are using an online application, which makes the process far more challenging.

“You can’t walk into a store, make eye contact with a manager, and make an impression,” she said. “It is a demeaning process, very impersonal and discouraging. Being told by a computer that I’m inadequate for a low-paying job is a slap in the face for a college educated professional.”

Kate went on to explain how hard it is, in her mid-50s, to compete with younger job seekers. She has lowered her wage expectations and feels like she is starting all over again.

Losing financial self-sufficiency can be much like a grieving process. Some may find it difficult to ask for help, especially when they never imagined dealing with their current situation. Feelings of shock, depression or shame can be a real barrier to locating or utilizing local resources.

When asked how she is coping, Kate said “You have to have a sense of humor. My retirement fund is gone, and being depressed won’t bring it back.”

For people who have never had trouble paying their bills on time, the psychological impact can be

“I feel a lot of shame,” said Jeff, the computer programmer. “We live in a small town. There is a stigma, like I must have done something to deserve this.”

Bethany is also trying to conceal her situation, and is careful about when she asks for help.
She recently felt the stigma when it came time to pay for her child’s
soccer season.

“All the other parents whipped out their checkbooks after practice, and I can’t do that anymore,” she said.
So Bethany pretended to be busy with her youngest daughter, stalling until the other parents had left so she could speak privately with the coach about a payment plan. Everyone has been kind and understanding, she said, but she is still ashamed to let the other parents know about her situation.

“We live in a town where people have money,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to get picked on or feel left out.”
The stress will only increase as the holiday season approaches.

Bethany, who used her Christmas Club savings to pay for rent, plans to borrow money from  family members and sell her jewelry. She worries about her son, who is old enough to know what is going on, but still wants to dress like his friends.

“It’s hard for the kids to understand finances. Kids can be so cruel about not wearing the right clothes or shoes.” Her younger daughters are just happy to have mom home with them. “I love spending more time with my kids, but I feel like such a loser,” Bethany said. “I’ve always been able to support my family and it’s hard to get used to not working.”

She is considering signing up for the Empty Stocking Project, which provides anonymous gifts to low-income families.
Both Kate and Jeff share this anxiety. They too admit it will be a lot harder for them to celebrate the holidays this year.
Kate and her husband won’t give gifts to each other this year, and plan to scale back other gift giving as well.

And Jeff has cancelled his Thanksgiving travel plans. Rather than visit his family on the West Coast, he will stay home with his wife and son. “We’ll have a Skype Thanksgiving,” Jeff said, “with the laptop at the head of the dining room table.”

Michelle Read DeGarmo has worked in the human services field for 16 years. She currently works with Marvin & Company Community Revitalization, a local consulting firm that helps rural municipalities administer affordable housing programs. Look for DeGarmo’s article in next week’s edition of Saratoga TODAY Newspaper.

Read 29213 times Last modified on Monday, 28 January 2013 09:54