An ever-more-common journey: from middle class to just hanging on

Delma J. Francis: "One thing my situation has instilled in me is humility."
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides
Delma Francis: “One thing my situation has instilled in me is humility.”

I’m broke.

Sure. We all say it from time to time. It usually means:

• I can’t afford that Wii my kid wants.

• That cute pair of sandals will have to stay at Macy’s for now.

• No Disney World vacation this year.

But now when I say I’m broke, I mean it — as in $10 to my name until my next unemployment check. You see, I’m the poster child for what the current economy is doing to the middle class.

Until 23 months ago, I’d never been unemployed. When I took a buyout at the Star Tribune on June 15, 2007, I was sure I’d find another job quickly, although my entire career has been in newspapers — which, as you may know, are not doing a lot of hiring these days. Still, writing and editing are valuable assets to many businesses. What I hadn’t counted on was the total tanking of the economy.
 
Just one of many
I know there are thousands of Minnesotans coping with unemployment. I write this for them as much as for me. As an occasional freelance writer for MinnPost, I have a voice and a vehicle for letting our fellow citizens know what is happening. Many of them don’t.

One thing my situation has instilled in me is humility. I no longer hesitate to ask for help when I need it; false pride is gone forever. Heck, here I am baring my soul to anyone who reads MinnPost.com. So I say to those in my shoes, those who may not have had to seek help before: Forget pride and go to the county for help.

Not that anyone going that route will find it easy. I’ve been there, done that. The income guidelines are so low for assistance that my unemployment benefit at its highest of $459 after taxes — barely enough to pay my first mortgage (never mind the second mortgage and a few other little things like utilities, food, gasoline, car insurance and health insurance) — was too much to qualify me for assistance.
 
Unemployment system overwhelmed
Maneuvering through the unemployment-insurance system is no piece of cake either. It is so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people applying every day that the software can’t keep up, according to a kind and helpful supervisor. She said, “It’s no wonder you’re all confused. We’re confused.”

You’re asked to reapply numerous times — and in my case I was mistakenly put on an extension of my unemployment benefit, even though I qualified for a regular account because of a job I held for three weeks in September 2008. (That’s another nightmare of a story.) Because my salary at that job was less than half what I made at the Star Tribune, my new unemployment benefit was supposed to be about $100 less a week than before. But because unemployment insurance mistakenly put me on the extension, I continued to receive the same weekly amount as before. How was I to know anything was awry?
 
So the second Monday in February, when I went online to request my weekly benefit, imagine my horror when I was refused. My new friend at Unemployment Insurance explained the situation, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I was being made to pay back the overpayment. I was paying for their mistake! So from the first week in February to the second week in March, I received no money. If not for the kindness of friends and occasional substitute teaching gigs, I would have gone under for sure. As it was, I fell behind on my mortgage at a crucial time when I was working with the lender on a modification.
 
Back to the county …
With that change in my circumstances, I went back to the county, sure that I would now qualify for EBT, formerly known as food stamps, or medical assistance. (Being on the far side of 40 with no health insurance is not a comfortable place to be.) But no. The $508 a month in early pension and what I had earned substitute teaching the previous pay period rendered me still ineligible for help.
 
“Wait a minute,” I said to the county worker. “Let me get this straight. Because I’m working when I can, trying to help myself — and by doing so, paying taxes to help all those people out in the waiting room feed their kids and keep themselves healthy — I can’t get any help?”

She just stared at me without an ounce of remorse for the news she’d just delivered.

Well, I thought, sock it to the middle class once again. We pay the bills in this country, and now, in our hour of need, there’s no help for us. The wealthy aren’t suffering. (Oh sure, their portfolios have taken a hit, no doubt about it. But everything’s relative. At least they have portfolios. Mine is gone, including my 401(k). Can you relate, unemployed middle-class folks?) The poor are getting what they’ve always gotten — assistance with housing, food and health care. As for me, I’m walking around with a bull’s-eye on my back because I have no health care. Can’t afford it. Don’t qualify for medical assistance. I’m broke.

Middle class seeking energy aid in droves
Again, I’m not the only one in this predicament. According to Anthony Spears, director of fiscal services for Community Action of Minneapolis, middle-class folks are applying for energy assistance in droves.

“Because so many people are being laid off, we’ve seen a big increase” of applications from those who have always been able to pay their heating and electricity bills, Spears said.

And others, including Kathy Wills of Family Pathways, have described the current phenomenon of new, middle-class clients seeking food and other aid after losing jobs (Community Voices, March 30).

Like many of my fellow travelers on this rocky road, I have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and years of experience, but here I am, unemployed. I want to work. I need to work, but at a livable wage. Many employers who are hiring are taking advantage of the vast numbers of qualified unemployed people out there and offering far less than the jobs should pay, not enough to allow us to keep modest homes, even on a shoestring budget with no frills.
 
My dream (aside from landing a full-time job) is to testify on Capitol Hill — to put a face on the plight of the middle-class unemployed. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can to stay afloat — like all too many others.

Delma Francis writes about children and families, faith and values, and other topics.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Noah Hanson on 05/05/2009 - 09:52 am.

    Amen. The poor still have the social safety net to fall back on, and the rich still have money. We in the middle class are the ones getting the shaft.

    If too many more of us are put in this situation it will be time to take to the streets in the cities and towns.

  2. Submitted by Kassie Church on 05/05/2009 - 10:02 am.

    Ugh.

    First, apply for MinnesotaCare. It is run by the State and you do not apply for it at the Counties (for the most part.) You will probably qualify.

    Second, what reaction did you want from the county worker? A patronizing, “I’m so sorry”? Have you thought for a second about what position they are in? The worker has to tell people who are MUCH WORSE OFF than you are they are not eligible every day. They have to tell people every day that they will be homeless tomorrow and there is nothing that can be done. Having worked that job for 5 years, I know where that worker is. And there is nothing worse than being told “but I payed my taxes!” Did you work to get benefits raised? Did you write your legislator to get programs expanded? What did you expect?

    And Food Stamps are not called EBT. EBT stands for “Electronic Benefit Transfer” and is basically the card you get if you get any cash or food benefits. Food Stamps are called Food Support in Minnesota and SNAP by the Feds.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/05/2009 - 11:32 am.

    I feel your pain, Delma.

    I’m still employed, although my employer was forced to pass along a 10% cut in pay, across the board, to remain in a position from where they can to offer me, and my colleagues, continued employment.

    Our corporate newsletter last week featured e-mail and memo’s from employees expressing their gratitude for the effort our company is putting into retaining as many of us as possible at a time when we can all clearly see there is are bare minimum of new projects in production.

    That’s why so many of us are at a loss for words when reading about various trade unions (and guilds) refusing to face the economic realities that we can see so plainly.

    You undoubtedly share our genuine anger when the public employee unions, especially, declare their intention to strike before accepting any cuts in pay…despite the fact that many of those that pay their salaries have done so, or as in your case, have had them cut to $0.

    On the bright side, we are so very lucky to have a man in the Governors office that has *our* best interests in focus. Governor Tim Pawlenty has made it crystal clear that under no circumstances will he allow the DFL dominated legislature’s plan to rub the salt of higher taxes into our wounds, stand.

    I wish you the best of luck in your job search. Your newfound humility will most likely be tested again before you land on your feet, but remember that a determined, unwavering effort and trust *in yourself* and *your abilities* will not go unrewarded!

  4. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 05/05/2009 - 11:41 am.

    I was with you until the part about “employers who are hiring are taking advantage of the vast numbers of qualified unemployed people out there and offering far less than the jobs should pay” — who is to say what a job “should” pay? The market decides that. If the supply (qualified workers) exceeds the demand (open positions) then the job “should pay” less. To think otherwise is part of the issue we have in this country today.

    As for the rest of your story I do appreciate that you wrote it and I do wish you well. I think that more stories like this would motivate people to seek some reform in the systems and tax policies of our country/state that cause the excess funds to be wasted when times are good and not enough money to go around when times are tough.

  5. Submitted by dan buechler on 05/05/2009 - 02:28 pm.

    I too was laid off from the Strib. Along with fifty other 50 year olds. The Strib was generous thankfully.
    Was able to take a 7 day trades course that proved to be very helpful. This was part of the dislocated worker program. Also thank good government for blue cross/blue shield. My HMO refused to carry me past 3 months even though I have never been hospitalized and most likely will not have a blood pressure situation until I’m 64. Also was able to lose twenty pounds but I would not reccomend anxiety as a way to lose weight.
    I understand where Marshall Mathers i.e. Eminem got some of his anger. He was working dead end jobs and trying to support his family. I wish you well.

  6. Submitted by Paula Wethington on 05/05/2009 - 03:02 pm.

    Do you have a grocery-by-the box program in your area?

    Angel Food Ministries and Great Food for All are two of several such programs operating in the U.S.

    These grocery purchase programs are aimed at the middle class with no questions asked, no income requirements.

    At both AF and GF, you can purchase a $30 box of food that would normally cost $60.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/05/2009 - 03:35 pm.

    Nice post from Thomas Swift. EXCEPT for being thankful that Tim Pawlenty will keep us all safe from those who might …. shudder shudder … ask the wealthy to pay state taxes at least at the same rate as middle class folks do.

    Over 8 years, the 1999 and 2000 cuts Pawlenty refused to reverse cost the state 8 billion dollars in revenue. We could have had no shortfall, no Pawlenty cuts to health and human services and no kicking 80,000 people off MinnesotaCare. (I think perhaps your county worker has “compassion fatigue” from dealing day after day with you and others she is forced to send away without help.)

    If you’re free at noon on Tuesday the 11th, The Budget Project is sponsoring a rally in the Capitol Rotunda in support of fair taxation and fair treatment of people. You could attend the rally and visit your legislators afterward AND perhaps write an article about it. (See http://www.investinmn.org)

  8. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 05/05/2009 - 04:35 pm.

    http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2009/05/05-3

    Look at this to see homeless all over the country. That is a called an “Economic Depression”, or worse. During the 80’s, the autoworkers could relocate to Texas and elsewhere; now the entire country has been destroyed by WALL Street – not high taxes or low taxes, but Wall Street looting of the physical economy to feed their bubbles.

    Now ask: how many people did FDR employ by the end of his 100 days in the PWA, CWA, and CCC? Several million. They were building useful projects, such as new concrete runways at the Minneapolis Airport, which proved crucial in mobilizing for WWII.

    In contrast, Banker’s Boy Barack Obama is a complete and total tool of the financial elites: Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, who created this catastrophe. In addition, he has fascist behavioral austerity freaks like Peter Orszag running OMB, who are saying, “Don’t give Grandma that hip replacement; she is going to die anyway”.

    Make NO mistake: this is National Socialism.

  9. Submitted by edward allen on 05/05/2009 - 07:05 pm.

    You sound like the medieval monk who lost his job illustrating manuscripts because of the invention of moveable type, but still are looking for another illustration job. Face it, the days of newspapering are gone. Over. Dead. Put a fork in it and you will see. You seem to have the education, so get into some other line of business. This society has declared we have no more need of high-paid reporters doing what bloggers and others do for free. So acknowledge that your profession died, and find another one.

  10. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/05/2009 - 08:34 pm.

    Edward –

    Where in the piece does Delma say she’ll only take another “high-paid reporters job”? I’m fairly sure her subsequent job was not at a media organization.

    As she correctly notes, “writing and editing are valuable assets to *many businesses.*” (Emphasis mine for those who missed it the first time.)

  11. Submitted by R.L. AREND on 05/05/2009 - 09:54 pm.

    To those younger readers of this post, please note that lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on any one else’s part. Spend your working life amassing a fund or conservative investments that would support your desired lifestyle for at least five years if you lost all income. This can be accomplished if you forego unnecessary luxury items for several decades. You do not need four-dollar cups of coffee or Lexus automobiles. But if you choose to indulge and then lose your income, don’t complain. In most cases, lower earning working-class people cannot plan ahead financially, but young professionals certainly can.

  12. Submitted by edward allen on 05/06/2009 - 06:44 am.

    David: Look at this piece in the NYT today. Business is HIRING. There are jobs out there. The sky isn’t falling. It is not all darkness, bleakness and misery.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/business/economy/06hire.html?hp

  13. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/06/2009 - 08:49 am.

    Ed – no one said it was. But unemployment is rising, too. Why blame this all on the victims?

  14. Submitted by edward allen on 05/06/2009 - 09:26 am.

    David: I think this is an important issue for the new media to address. Is it going to pick up the unrelenting gloom of the dead tree products, which gave us uncounted column inches involving the horrors and pains of unemployment, the tears and hurt caused by the insidious spread of crime and drug addiction on our streets, the corruption and self-dealing of our political leaders? Or is the new media going to stride out on a more positive note? Yes, things are bad as we are hitting a major transition point in our economy, but are they uniformly so? Apparently not, if I read the last month of New York stock trading. What happened to an older generation of journaists who somehow found interesting people who overcame incredible adversity to survive and thrive? The reason I gave up on dead tree journalism is that I got sick of being constantly directed to revel in other people’s misery.

  15. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/06/2009 - 04:17 pm.

    Edward: Many bloggers and other on-line news sources are actually writing opinion pieces, while print newspapers include real investigative journalism on topics that someone has researched deeply and conducted numerous interviews about.

    Question: Do you really want to read only “optimistic” news about heroes who overcome adversity or do you think there should be some news about those who have no way to do so?

    If we don’t hear about the elderly, mentally/emotionally ill and living on the street, disabled persons, teenagers who have run away from abusive homes, residents of Detroit, for instance, we will make no effort to ease their plight … personally or collectively through government.

  16. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/06/2009 - 08:47 pm.

    “Well, I thought, sock it to the middle class once again. We pay the bills in this country, and now, in our hour of need, there’s no help for us.”

    You had me until this. Its a common comment often made by those lucky enough not to have been in the system. Yes, you have been lucky, but your luck has run out and this time it was your industry that took the hit. What you are writing is nothing new to the poor folks, some call them Lucky Duckys, that are living the good life on welfare, with their fancy health care, rent subsidized palacial estates, fancy bus passes and all the other perks that come along with living in poverty.

    Get a grip hon, those people might have a few things going for them. Very Few. You have wealth, you own a home, you have an education, you have freinds that will help you out in a pinch. You’ll come out of this forget all about it and never look back at all the folks who are in stuck with this system for thier entire life.

    So please spare me. What you are experiencing is new to you but it sure ain’t new. Honestly I can’t believe someone of your age is so naive to real life.

  17. Submitted by Jodie Zoeller on 05/07/2009 - 11:53 am.

    I don’t know about wages of journalists in Minnesota but in Texas my husband who was a writer/editor in a community newspaper never made more than 25K annually. Barely about poverty most of his working life, but loved his job. He’s disabled now in his late 50s due to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions for which SS thankfully pays him a nice monthly check. I was a successful professional working 20 years for a Fortune 500 company in Information Technology group. But I was involuntarily laid off in Jan 2009. I am one of the lucky ones, in that 1.5 months later I had a new job. I have many other former company friends who were also in IT and laid off…. that are still looking and may be looking for a LONG time for a job in our industry which has been off-shoring at an alarming rate. I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. When I graduated in 1982 from a small university in San Antonio Texas, I found a tough job market but managed to find a job for 18K. My salary grew over the last 27 years with promotions, change of jobs and merit increases. My Fortune 500 company rewarded me with stock options and bonuses in lieu of base pay increases in the 90s and 00s. However, I took a public sector IT job paying almost 20% less in March 2009 with no profit sharing, very expensive health insurance with very high deductibles and other negatives for someone from a Fortune 500 compage. Yet I’m HAPPY to have a JOB. I pray for my friends and family and strangers to be as lucky as me. Thanks, Jodie in Dallas TX

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