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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.



THE HIGH COST OF BEING POOR
People on the fringe, the ones who are barely making it, pay more for everything. And banks, credit companies and even mortgage houses are laughing at them all the way to the bank.

by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved

The mentally challenged middle-aged man and his elderly mother had made it to front of the banking line at a Fort Worth Wal-Mart on a Monday afternoon. Perhaps you didn’t know you can bank at Wal-Mart, but there it is—First Convenience Bank, in with the eyeglass repair shop and the photo studio. The man and his mom were talking to a young teller about bank fees.

The man had just opened the bank account a few days before and had his paycheck—$455 take-home for two weeks’ work—direct deposited there. The problem, it turned out, was that the check hadn’t been deposited until after 2 p.m. on Friday, which meant it wasn’t credited to the account until Monday night at midnight, and wouldn’t be available until Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. Not realizing the delay, the man—obviously excited about the banking experience—had used his bank card 17 times between Friday evening and Monday—unknowingly ringing up a $29 overdraft charge each time. So when he went to the bank in person that afternoon to take out more money, he found that not only was his whole paycheck gone, but he now owed the bank more than a hundred dollars beyond that. He couldn’t figure out what had happened.

“I didn’t spend that much,” he kept explaining, taking out his wallet and showing the teller receipts for gum, candy, a couple of dollars in gasoline and a handful of other very minor expenses that didn’t total $100.

“Look,” the teller explained. “I told you when you opened that if you used the check protection it would cost $29 per use. It doesn’t matter how small it was. You used it 17 times, and that comes to $493. Your check was for $455, so you have no money left, and you owe the bank the difference as well as for your purchases.”

The man’s mother was near tears by this time. Fortunately, several irate customers waiting in line had overheard the conversation and demanded to speak to the branch manager, who agreed that perhaps the bank was out of line in this case and promised to remedy the situation.

Shortly thereafter First Convenience Bank raised its overdraft rates to $33 per use. Why not—there’s no state or federal law that controls what banks can charge in overdraft fees. Such fees are common—and highly profitable—at the small banks that cater to the poor and middle-class by offering checking accounts with automatic “overdraft protection” that’s supposed to help keep checks from bouncing.

Unfortunately, many poor people, living paycheck to paycheck, use the overdraft “protection” more like short-term, and very high interest, line of credit. “Some people use it like a regular loan,” said a teller at the same Wal-Mart branch bank where the story told above happened. “A lot of customers dip into it once or twice a month to cover a check or buy food.” How many of the customers? “Almost all of them,” said the teller, who asked that his name not be used. “And we have thousands of accounts.”

No one thinks paying $29 for the privilege of writing checks you can’t quite cover is a sound financial practice. But what are you going to do when your kids are hungry and you don’t get paid until Friday? It’s the kind of choice that poor people across the country are being forced to make more and more often. Welfare reforms instituted in 1996 are hitting home with a vengeance, housing programs are being cut back, and financial institutions—from banks to credit card companies—are finding new ways to add fees and jack up rates. Worse, an overhaul of bankruptcy laws that just was enacted into law makes even that extreme measure more difficult to use and considerably more expensive for most people who still fall within the new parameters. Local charities are trying to respond to need that is growing far faster than their resources—as more middle-class jobs are being replaced by part-time work or service jobs or the kind of contract, project-by-project labor that carries few or no benefits. It all adds up to a slope that gets steeper and more slippery with each passing month.

Angela Guardiola, is a strong 46-year-old Latina with dark eyes and a set jaw. She has a good job. Born in Lubbock, her home has been Fort Worth for most of her life. Her house in south Fort Worth is modest but just fine; better than that, it’s paid for. Her two children are grown and on their own. A short and bad second marriage, from which she’s been separated for nearly three years, is about to end in a non-acrimonious divorce. Life is good.

It hasn’t always been that way. “I’ve struggled most of my life to get where I am now,” she says with a Spanish accent that carries no trace of self-pity. Then she launches into a story that would have broken weaker men and women.

“In my first marriage I was hoping for the American Dream. You know, where you have to work but everyone is healthy and happy. But life isn’t like that.” Her husband was a sales contractor but didn’t do very well, so Angela supported the family. “I didn’t mind, though,” she says; “I was making about $14 an hour at a printing company,” good money in the late 80s. They had two kids and bought a house. “But then my husband left, and after that I got laid off from my job. So now I had two kids and an $800 house payment and credit cards, no job, and no child support.” She found a job quickly but it only paid $5 dollars an hour, and pretty soon she found herself with the choice of either keeping up the car payments or the credit cards. “I kept the car and ruined my credit.” She applied for welfare and food stamps but was turned down for both because she owned both a house and a car, despite neither of them being paid off. “They said I had to get rid of one or the other to get public assistance. Instead I worked two shifts a lot of the time, seven days a week.” At that pay, though, she still couldn’t make my house payments, so after paying off eight-and-a-half years on a 15-year mortgage, she lost it. “I didn’t get anything from that. The bank said I didn’t have any equity in it.”

She was asked why she wasn’t able to borrow money from family to keep the payments going.

“That was 1993, and all my family was struggling, and my dad passed just about that time, so even my mom was struggling. I had nobody to borrow from to get through that,” she said. She was able to move into her mother’s home though, and take over the $160-a-month mortgage payments that her dad had paid since 1972. “That was a lifesaver,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done if that house wasn’t there.” Not long after she moved into her mother’s house however, she had to take over the raising of her sister’s two kids—because her sister’s marriage had also failed and she was jobless—and the frequent double shifts became mandatory.

“I had the choice to either be with my kids and be homeless, or work all the time and give them less time than they should have had with me. My son was 7 then, and my daughter was 15. I’d do one shift, then come home, and after they went to sleep I’d leave to go do the next shift. But I didn’t want my kids growing up in a shelter so I did what I had to do.”

The double shifts and seven days went on for several years. But Angela became a supervisor where she worked and met another man whom she married. With two incomes, the kids nearly grown, and the low mortgage on her mother’s house nearly paid off, she thought the tough times were through. They weren’t. The marriage only lasted a couple of years before he split, leaving her once again to carry the load.

“I got a job at a printing place again through a temp agency for $7.50 an hour, but they kept me on, and I’m up to $13.50 after three years, so I’m okay. But my credit is still bad, and when I had a fire in the house a couple of years ago I couldn’t get a loan to repair the damage, so I had to keep living in it that way. I took a little money from each paycheck to slowly fix it.”

The city surely could have helped with that, couldn’t they?

“I went to the Red Cross and the City of Fort Worth and the Department of Housing and nobody could help because they said I make too much money. It doesn’t feel like too much money to me. Even with my kids grown, I still have to pay school tax, health insurance, disability, car insurance, a car payment of $310 a month on a 1998 car — it’s high because of my bad credit — and then eat and pay for gas. But they have their rules, and that’s that.”

It’s hard to imagine that a Angela, raising four children on a $5-an-hour job, couldn’t get welfare or food stamps, or that she couldn’t get help to repair fire damage.

On the federal level, before the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, if Angela hadn’t owned both a car and a house, she might have been able to support herself, her mom, her kids, and her sister’s kids on welfare. Or she might have been able to cut back on work and been eligible for food stamps. But since January 1997, when welfare was renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), she’d have no chance. While the US Dept. of Health and Human Services sets the poverty line for single people at an income level of $9,570, a family of three at $16,090 and a family of four at $19,350 —income that 11.6 percent of Fort Worth residents don’t meet, according to the US Census Bureau—to be eligible for TANF cash assistance, a family of three can’t have an annual income of more than $2,300. “And the maximum benefit is only $223 a month, not exactly enough to live on.” said Celia Hagert, the TANF expert at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank out of Austin, TX.

It doesn’t translate well: if you’re making $6.30 a day, Texas’ TANF will give you an extra $7.60 daily to cover your housing, transportation, clothes and everything you need in the kitchen and bathroom that food stamps won’t cover. If you get the max that is. Texas, in fact, has one of the lowest eligibility levels and provides the lowest benefits in the country. In Tarrant County, in which Fort Worth is located, over three-fourths of TANF applicants are denied, while over one-third of the Food Stamp applicants get turned away. They’re not much of a benefit anyway: A family of three with zero income is eligible for a maximum benefit of $340 per month. That comes to just under four bucks a day per person, enough for eggs and cheap hot dogs if you hold the mustard.

In Maria De la Cruz’s case the help she got was {certainly} worse than none at all. In 2002, the foundation of her eastside, Fort Worth home cracked, leading to a leak in the roof. At 70, and living on a $600-a-month social security check she was getting because her husband had died, there was no money to fix it. She called her daughter Cathy for help. “I couldn’t help her at that moment because I was struggling to make ends meet myself,” Cathy says. “So I tried to get city help.” Cathy found out about a city agency that builds homes for poor people, and contacted them, but was told the waiting list was full just then. She contacted the Fort Worth Housing Authority and they said they couldn’t help with the repairs either. “But we kept calling and calling and then finally, instead of sending out someone to help, they sent code compliance inspectors. They said the damage was too extensive by then and the repairs would be too expensive, so they condemned the house. It was her home for 25 years and they just ordered it torn down and left my mom homeless.”

With no savings and no home, Maria was forced to quickly sell the property her home had sat on, bringing $4,000 for a piece of land worth several times that. With that she was able to get an apartment, but moving costs and security ate into her tiny nest egg and in a matter of months the $500-per-month rent finished the rest.

“When that little bit was gone, how was she going to pay her rent and utilities on her $600 a month?” asks Cathy. “She couldn’t, and the stress got too much. She had a heart attack in November.”

Fortunately Medicaid took care of the medical bills, and Maria was able to move in with Cathy. Because the city has a long waiting list for those who need transportation to doctors though, Cathy has had to take off several days a month since her mother moved in getting her to her medical appointments. “I can’t afford to lose that pay,” she says, “but that’s life.”

When a major financial blow hits that dumps a household in the path of financial disaster—like the demolition of Maria’s house—people often need help in a hurry. The cold reality is, however, that major assistance programs seldom kick in quickly—if they kick in at all. And so workers and families are forced to begin the desperate dance that keeps them one step of the flood.

Celia Hagert said the Center for Public Policy Priorities recently spent four months following several families who found themselves a day late and a dollar short, to see how they coped. “What we found was that they were all involved in this fantastic and complex juggling act. What bill absolutely had to get paid? What bill could they get an extension on? Did they have anything they could pawn? Was it worth it to get a pay-day loan from a check cashing house? Could they get more credit? They’d sell what they could, have garage sales, and basically just juggle for as long as they could, hoping that the overtime would come back, the raise would come through, a new job would open up.”

But most of those solutions have their own pitfalls, and bleed you a dollar at a time. Pawning things rarely gets more than 10 percent of their value. Garage sales don’t work if you sell your blouses for more than a dollar or two, so they might work to clear your clutter or pay a utility bill, but won’t raise the rent. Asking for more credit is asking for more bills you can’t afford to pay later on. Paying one bill late in favor of another results in a late fee. Pay day loans from Ace Check Cashing, which has sites all over Ft. Worth, sound reasonable—you pay $17.64 in interest on $100 for two weeks or less—but that number comes to 459.90 percent annually, so that if you can’t pay that short term loan off in two weeks, and if it was for say, $400., you’ll find that the interest is $137.28 at the end of a month. And if you couldn’t pay it back this month, you’d better hope there is a lot of overtime if you hope to pay it next month.

And Ace isn’t the worst. With minimal usury laws in Texas, places can charge what they want. Payday loans from internet sites routinely charge a $250 fee on a $600 loan for a week or less, figures that would make New York City loansharks blush.

“The problem starts with people,” says Coleman Cassel, CEO of Startovertoday.com, a nationwide financial solutions company. “Most Americans spend about 110 percent of what they earn in my experience. Which means they don’t have savings for when things go wrong—and they will go wrong sooner or later—or if they do, they’re not adequate.” Cassel, whose company deals with all aspects of financial issues, from people who have too much money to people who don’t have enough, admits that by the time people reach him, they generally have too much debt. “People don’t really understand credit,” he says. “You shouldn’t even have credit cards unless you can pay them all off completely before the end of the grace period. If you’re using them because you’re strapped, you’re already in trouble. I’ve seen people make washer and dryer purchases that cost two and three times their original price and they’re still nowhere near paid off. That is being poor. Better to wait on that purchase till you can buy it, pay for it, and be done with it. But that’s not how people think.”

Cassel sees credit card lending practices and Americans’ overspending as the one-two punch that lands people in hot water. “Look at your credit cards. Let’s say you’re smart and have managed to get your cards all locked in at reasonable rates, say from 5.9 percent to 9 percent. Seems handleable. But then credit cards sometimes sell your account to other companies with whom you are not locked in, so you get a bill and suddenly see that it’s from a company you never heard of and that 5.9 percent rate is 24.9 percent. Nothing you can do about it.”

Moreover, he says, it’s a regular practice of credit card companies to shorten their grace period. What might have started out as a 30-day grace period before interest sets in suddenly gets changed to a 20-day grace period. Notice of the change would have been in some small print that came with your regular bill—print the credit card company knows you will not have seen. “They’re counting on you missing it. And if you’re like most Americans, waiting till the last minute to pay the bill because you havn’t got it, well, you just got slammed. Because you now paid late. And paying late opens you up to the Universal Default Clause—or what I call the Universal Slam.”

The Universal Default Clause, says Cassel, is a tiny clause that credit card companies have been inserting in their initial agreements recently. It states that if you are ever late with one card, you can be viewed as having been late with all your cards, and so your interest rates can be changed on every card you have.

“Let’s say you’re well off. You get a great rate to begin with, and you pay it within a few days of getting the bill. No problem. But if you’re financially marginal, doing the juggling act and you fall into the slam, you might find that all your rates have just jumped to 24.9 percent. Heck, in Texas, they can rise to anything the companies want.”

He paused to laugh. “I’m not just talking about the late fees—and some of them are up to $49.—I’m talking about a Chase card one of my clients brought in today with an interest rate of 49.99 percent. Imagine having your interest—based on being slammed because you were late on a card one month—from 5.9 percent to 49.99 percent overnight. They just buried you. And there’s nothing illegal about that.”

Cassel also says that with so many people defaulting on their credit cards these days—“It’s way up in the last couple of years, no matter what you read about the recovering economy”—the companies have taken to calling neighbors to ask them to try to collect their bills. “Can you imagine someone calling your neighbor or your work and telling them you’re a deadbeat and can they try to get a payment out of you? How is that not illegal I don’t know, but it’s not. And these companies make billions off people.”

In fact, says Cassel, most of his clients—and his thoughts are echoed by Stephanie Fowler of fowlerandfowler.net, a nationwide debt consolidation firm—are not deadbeats. “They just simply cannot support those fees. Nobody can pay 24 percent interest to anyone when you’re just getting by to begin with.”

By the time they reach Cassel or Fowler, most clients are near the end of their rope and what they need is a way out. For many, that way is debt negotiation, in which you pay someone like Cassel or Fowler, who calls up your credit card companies, cancels your cards, and tries to make a deal. “We ask the company if they’ll take maybe $.50 on a dollar and call it even,” he says. It’s a technique that will ruin your credit, though by the time you’re there it’s probably already ruined, and cost you your cards, but can take some of the pressure off and allow you to slowly get back on your financial feet.

“You know, says Cassel, “We’re getting more and more people who are making $70,000 a year who just can’t make it anymore. If only they’d taken a basic economics course at some point. Learned to put away 10 percent of that paycheck no matter what. Never bought anything except a house or car that they couldn't pay off in a month. Set up a series of CD’s with their bank with each one valued at the amount you need to live on for a full month—including everything—that would mature one a month for six months so that you have half-a-year to get through that divorce or job loss.”

The next step for many people after debt negotiation is bankruptcy. It’s the final stigma of failure for most people, the public sign that they’ve failed. It happens to a lot of people. According to the American Bankruptcy Institute more than 1.6 million individual Americans filed last year, most of whom filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or debt liquidation. And those that filed were not mostly people in poverty, they were what most of us would consider middle class.

“Bankruptcy crosses every line in the book: We’re not serving rich or even generally formerly rich clients, and we don’t really serve people in poverty. Our clients are bankers, teachers, military men, people from middle and upper management,” says Cole Fulks, a bankruptcy attorney with Jim Morrison and Associates of Fort Worth. “I’ve been doing bankruptcys for more than 10 years now and have seen a sizeable increase in the number of filings by regular working people in the last last three to four years.”

Like most of those who unexpectedly find themselves poor, Fulks says the three primary reasons people have for tossing in the towel are being laid off, medical costs and divorce. “They just can’t pay their debts anymore,” he says. Fulks lays the blame on the lending institutions and what he calls “predatory lending practices.”

“These companies push credit on people. Who recruits on a high school campus? The military, drug dealers and credit card companies. That should tell you something. They offer good loan rates, then change them and suddenly people are stuck. I deal with the fallout.”

Bankruptcy was created here in the US because Americans didn’t like the British debtor’s prison system. In theory you work hard but if you need it, you can call it quits and get a breather through bankruptcy once every seven years. It’s supposed to be a fresh start. A humbling one, perhaps, but a chance to start over nonetheless.

Unfortunately, changes in the bankruptcy laws that were lobbied for by credit lending firms have just been passed by Congress and they will limit a person’s right to discharge his debts. “What we’re about to see is the attempt to deny a person’s ability to get relief from predatory debt. The new laws will push more people into Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is a repayment plan, rather than debt liquidation that you have with Chapter 7 bankruptcy,” says Fulks. “More than that, it will make us bankruptcy lawyers responsible for the truth of our clients’ financial statements. Which will double, triple our costs.”

Under Chapter 13, your lawyer proposes a plan of repayment that runs from 3-5 years. The creditors present their claims on your unsecured loans (it doesn’t protect your house or car or other secured loans where the item itself can simply be foreclosed or repossessed) and a judge tells you how much you’ve got to pay toward those debts each month. Whatever the creditors can get during that 3-5 year

period they get, and the remainder of the debt is discharged.

“What it really means is that if you’re poor, for whatever reason, it’s going to be harder to get back on your feet,” Fulks sighs. “But then that’s what this society does with poor people at every turn: even a loaf of bread and a gallon of gas cost more in a poor neighborhood than in a nice middle-class one.”

Debbie Kratky, who works for Texas Workforce Solutions in Fort Worth, puts it this way: “There are an awful lot more people than services. And there are an awful lot of poor people who’ve been middle-class all their lives, who, when one thing or another happens, suddenly find themselves poor. The problem is getting back out once you’ve fallen into that hole.”

And falling into that hole doesn’t take much, as Angela Guardiola and Maria De La Cruz discovered. A job layoff and a cracked foundation sent them spiraling. For others it’s a divorce, a Driving Under the Influence (DUI), loss of overtime, illness and a host of other things.

“And once you’re down,” says Angela, “you find out that poor people pay more for everything, which makes it doubly hard to climb up again.”

How hard? Cars are a good example. If two people take out identical $11,000 car loans, and one has a good credit score, he or she may be financed at 4 percent. The second person, with shaky credit, might have to pay 12.9 percent. Over the course of 60 months, the difference in interest payments will come to $50 monthly, or $3,000.

The same holds true for the credit extended on store cards as well as major credit cards. Those with the least have to pay more to assure the lender he’ll get a return on his money before the shaky creditor defaults. Even car insurance rates go up if your credit is not good.

Add to the extra car and credit card payments the late fees charged to those who run behind on their mortgage or apartment rents, the water, electric, phone, and cable TV bills, and you’re easily looking at between $100 and $200 monthly in extra charges. That’s the last thing the person who already can’t afford their bills needs.

And that’s if you can make the bills. God forbid you send a check that bounces: you’ll probably get hit with a $25 fee from the person you gave it to and another $25 from your bank—or maybe $33, if you bank at Wal-Mart.

Some banks now assess an overdraft charge on an account even when the money is there—because the bank decides to take withdrawals out of an account before—but on the same day—as a deposit lands. Savvy bank customers can usually get the charges removed—but only if they catch the “mistake,” understand it, and are willing to spend hours on the phone arguing with the bank.

Banks that cater to a poorer clientele generate enormous profits on their fees, rather than on making legitimate loans.

A call to Standard and Poor, which has breakdowns on the financial earnings of most US companies produced nothing either. “Fees are always incorporated with loan interest earnings,” said an S & P analyst who took the query. “Ever since banks started giving out the automatic overdraft protection they guard that income from everyone very jealously. And if we can’t get it, there’s no way to get it.”

Poor, of course, is a relative term, and one that most people don’t want to apply to themselves. But in the first decade of this new millenium, there can be few Americans left who believe that their industries, their jobs, their creature comforts are secure. From the burst of the dot.com bubble to the economic disaster that followed the 9/11 tragedies, to the speeded-up exportation of American jobs to other countries—the body blows to workers in this country have come fast and furious in the last decade. In Fort Worth, all five of the big blue-collar employers—American Airlines, Lockheed, Bell Helicopter, General Motors and General Dynamics—have undergone “restructuring” in the last few years, changing the work status of tens of thousands in Tarrant County from full-time employees with good benefits to project employees with fewer, if any benefits—and with unpaid time off between projects. There is unemployment insurance, of course, but that tops out at $336 weekly for anyone who earned $33,600 in the previous 12 months—not exactly enough to keep up a modest $800 mortgage, make the car and insurance payments and feed the kids. Add a divorce or a serious illness —especially if health insurance went out the window with the full-time job—and securely middle-class families can find that the SUV they were traveling in on Easy Street was equipped with a trapdoor.

Then there are permanent layoffs. According to Limous Walker, with the Texas Workforce Solutions, which tries to find work for the un-and-underemployed, Tarrant county lost 4,965 full time jobs with companies who had over five employees last year alone. “Office Max lost 293 jobs to a closure,” said Walker, “and Atlantic Southeast lost 1,200. Lockheed lost several hundred. Osteopathic Medical Center dropped 1,188—though some of those were able to find other work in the medical industry fairly quickly.” But, he cautions, “Those are just the jobs the Texas Workforce Commission found out about. A lot of companies don’t report downsizing, and then there is the loss of part-time work, overtime and so forth that cannot be figured because there is no way to track it.”

Larry Jones, Director of Communications with the Texas Workforce Commission counters that there were jobs added in Tarrant as well, as new housing and the roads, stores and restaurants needed to serve those McMansion communities was built and staffed. Still, according to Jones, while the Tarrant/Arlington District had a reasonable 5.8 percent unemployment rate, it still meant that 57,000 workers were unemployed in February, 2005. As most of those were heads of households, that would mean that more than 150,000 found themselves struggling to make ends meet. That’s nearly 25% of the populace.

One indicator of how many people are falling into the “poor” category, at least temporarily, is the number of calls for assistance the United Way of Tarrant County fields. In 2002, for instance, the United Way received 11,416 calls asking for help with utility bills. In 2004, that number had ballooned to over 25,000. Housing assistance calls rose 51 percent over the same two year period from 1,803 in 2002 to 2,714 in 2004. Requests for help with health care, child care, education and employment rose similarly.

“Basically, when someone gives us a call they’ve been referred by a church or neighbor and they need us,” says Vicky Mize, who handles the 211 emergency calls for the Tarrant United Way. “So the primary call usually is asking for money. They’re behind on rent and utilities and we’ve often got to talk to them about that but we also talk about food stamps and TANF. The majority of our callers have some employment but their job just doesn’t pay what it used to or it’s a new job which simply can’t make ends meet.”

“A lot of our calls come from people who have underlying problems,” adds the United Way’s Ann Rice, “like alcohol or drug abuse or domestic violence issues. But an awful lot are regular people who suddenly themselves in the situation of being over their head. It might be divorce, work or health issues but something has changed and they’re not able to make it any longer without help.”

In 51-year-old Jim Lively’s case it was a medical problem that drove his finances off the road. Till then they’d gotten along fine. Lively works a good job in manufacturing and his wife was earning nearly $50,000 in an administrative position. They had three kids, all grown. And Lively didn’t even have any credit cards. “I max’d them out 22-years ago and had to pay them off. So I got rid of them,” he said. It should have been Easy Street. There was a college loan to pay off, and there were house and car and truck and insurance payments and even an IRS bill, but nothing the Lively’s couldn’t handle with two incomes. Until Lively’s wife had a heart attack last year and two of his kids, one with a baby, moved back home. Suddenly Lively’s job was supporting everything and everyone and making up the difference between what his insurance paid on his wife’s condition and what the hospital charged. “That fast, things changed. I was lucky in that I could refinance the house to eliminate a couple of debts, and I still have my overtime, but it’s paycheck to paycheck. You love your kids and they need help, you help. Got the grandbaby, she needs formula. My 19-year-old is an eating machine. Thank goodness for Wal-Mart. Without my wife’s pay we just got nailed. I got paid today and worked 16 hours overtime this pay period and after the bills I’ll have $40 to get by for the next two weeks. That’s it.”

Lively’s wife went back to work recently, but rather than the high-pay, high-stress office job, she’s working part time at a farmer’s market for six bucks an hour. “That’s fine by me,” Lively says. “I’d rather be poor and healthy than have her sick.”

A lot of people are not as lucky as Lively. And when things crash, they burn. Help is out there, but it’s not fast. Even if you’re eligible for TANF or food stamps it takes weeks to get them. Low-cost housing has a waiting list too long for people who need a place to stay now. JPS will take care of your medical problems for free—in other words they won’t turn you away—if you can manage to sit through the waiting period, often more than 16-hours, in the emergency room. Texas Workforce Solutions will try to find you employment and can sometimes even offer training if you have gas money to get there. And the United Way and some local churches will do their best. “But if they call and need help today,” says Vicky Mize, “well, they’re out of luck. Period. We might be able to call your electric company and ask for an extension but we just can’t get an agency to work with you that fast. But if you can make it to the agency we can usually get the help they need.”

For the rest of us, it’s cross-your-fingers things don’t go sour. As Angela Guardiola notes, it’s “paycheck to paycheck and don’t get sick. It’s all you can do when you’re poor.”

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