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

Until 23 months ago, I’d never been unemployed. When I took a buyout, I was sure I’d find another job quickly.

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 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.