When you live at or under the federal poverty level, you’d better be good at crunching numbers. Every cent coming in or going out needs to be accounted for. My day planners have always been filled with the kind of detailed ledger you’d find in any small business: Rent, at $430 with our housing assistance, is at the top of the list, due on the first of the month. Second is Netflix, at $8, due on the 10th. On the 12th, a $25 payment for a credit card that’s maxed out at $500 and has a 12 percent interest rate. My private student loan with a balance of $2,800 is due on the 13th, and it’s often the bill I don’t pay. It has a 3 percent interest rate and a $133 monthly payment. If I am 30 days late, they start calling.
“Are you aware your payment is late?” they always ask.
“Yes,” I say. “Are you aware the payment you want is a fourth of my income?”
I can hear them shrug through the phone.
At this point in my life, I can compute rates and payments with the skill of a Wall Street day trader. I use an available balance of one credit card to make a payment on another card. I make $50 payments to two different store cards that have 26 percent interest rates. The phone and internet bill is $50. Electric is $53. Car and life insurance bills are $62. I have two more credit accounts with 20 percent interest rates that have the largest balances, the largest payments, and close out my month with payments due on the 22nd and 24th. I immediately use the available credit on these cards to get gas and toiletries.
For the past six years of putting myself through college, I’ve had lists posted in my home by my desk or on the fridge. They would list my fixed expenses, which usually hovered around $1,100, and my income from work, which usually came in between $300 and $1,300 depending on the time of the year. During school, I received grants and a scholarship but I still came out with $50,000 in debt, a chunk of that due to student loans.
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Federal poverty data released in September show I’m not alone as I juggle to make ends meet. While the unemployment rate is dropping, and parts of the economy show signs of improvement, not everyone is benefiting. According to the latest data, I am one of 46.7 million Americans who live in poverty. Factoring in the government assistance we receive for food, housing, health insurance, and child support, my total annual income hovers around $20,000. The current federal poverty level for a family of four is almost $24,000.
Over the last year, I’ve struggled to launch a freelance writing career while caring for my 8-year-old and 15-month-old daughters, and the dog we somehow acquired from the local shelter. Finding full-time work is difficult when you can’t afford daycare. And when money is so tight, even the smallest of wrenches thrown in the sputtering machine can set me back for months.
A wrench can be something as simple as my daughter’s after-school activities. I recently had to tell my older daughter that I didn’t think she could do the Nutcracker try-outs because of the $150 we have to pay upfront, and the make-up and costumes we’d have to pay for. I tried to convince her to do gymnastics again, since the gym gives us a scholarship. These are the conversations I hate the most.
I find myself asking how people in poverty are supposed to work their way out. We work so we won’t need assistance for food or health insurance, but even still, we’re not earning enough to sustain ourselves. Meanwhile, legislators are always looking for ways to pass laws that compromise our eligibility for help. Then there are always the other mishaps of life that can send your ledger spiraling. A broken transmission or a sick child can mean the loss of a hard-earned job.
The possibilities to upend the ledger are endless, real, and exhausting. For most of the last year, I sent my rent check in on time, knowing it wouldn’t be deposited until the 10th. I needed that extra time for child support payments and paychecks from the end of the previous month to go through in order for the rent check to clear. Paying the bills is like walking on rotted floorboards in your own house; at any moment an unexpected expense will cause you to fall through a hole. What’s worse, I have no back-up. No emergency credit card, no savings, and no family to help us out of a bind.
The recent poverty statistics are evidence that the economy may be improving, but not for those of us struggling the hardest to make ends meet. And every month, the scramble to pay the bills starts all over again.