Tag Archives: help

What's the tipping point?

Last week I canceled a trip to be with our grandchildren for Thanksgiving. The tipping point that forced the decision was a combination of unexpected medical co-pays on top of some un-budgeted car repair. While heartbreaking, it was not particularly serious and we expect to visit in a couple of weeks, but it made me wonder. I have made a living as a marketing version of the canary in a coal mine – a preeminent consumer of sorts. For whatever reason, I seem to experience things months or more before others. If something so insignificant could force my decision, could we, the formerly solid middle class, be on the edge of a more dramatic shift?

Hard working families all over our great country are facing tough economic decisions every day. Uncomfortable decisions. Decisions that seem different in scale than they used to be. Admittedly, living within a budget is a responsible and necessary way for each of us to live and manage our money. But what cumulative toll has the horrible economy taken on the type and frequency of such difficult decisions?

The Census Bureau defines poverty as $22,350 annually for a family of four, and near-poor as people within 200% above the poverty line. Officially, one in three Americans is poor or near-poor. Unofficially, it is at least one in two. The real life definition should also include people who are one unexpected event from being without money. Cash poor is not the same thing as poor, but it feels like it for a time and easily can become permanent.

Most of us have have taken some hits in the last few years. Someone in the family was laid off. Someone got sick. Someone entered the work force, but couldn’t find work adequate to pay their college loans. Credit lines dried up with house value. The house didn’t sell. The investment was made worthless. Your health insurance was cancelled, or only offered at a price greater than your house payment. But you endured. Party on.

There are Dominossteps down the ladder for the middle class near poor. Liquidate stocks and savings. Cash in retirement accounts. Sell your house for a smaller house. Sell that house for an apartment. Then a smaller apartment. Give up the life insurance you’ve paid on for twenty years. Give up the private schools. Gave up the extra car. Give up Whole Foods for Publix, then BigLots, then dumpster diving for food. Give up the malls for Walmart, then the charity store. Cancel cable and the newspaper. Unhook the land lines. Postpone preventative maintenance – dental care, health check ups, car tune-ups or new tires, overlook the minor car accident and cash the check. Let the dog die.

The middle class can take some hits. Americans are resilient. We can get smaller and leaner. We can do without. We can ask for help from friends or family. Wishing won’t change it. Remembering accrued disappointment makes it worse.

There must be a point in the spiral – the time or convergence of events, that leaves no options. The moment when all that you have worked for is gone. The time when you change economic classes. When there is no pretending.

A tipping point was first defined in physics as that “small amount of weight to a balanced object that can cause it to suddenly and completely topple.” Al Gore speaks of a tipping point for our environment – when it is too late to avoid the catastrophe that awaits. Is there a tipping point for the middle class? A moment when one extra burden, no matter its size or intended consequence, can cause millions, perhaps, tens of millions of families, to suddenly and completely topple?

What could be the tipping point?

  • This Great Recession is now entering its third year. Extended unemployment benefits, pitiful as they are, are about to expire and we do not have a Congress that will extend them.
  • The temporary payroll tax break is also expiring next month. The jury is out whether the Tea Party will make a deal to extend this tax break for working Americans. In real terms, the disappearance of payroll tax relief will cost the “average” worker about $2,000 next year. Will that be the tipping point?
  • The Bush tax cuts, now in their 10th year, are set to expire at the end of 2012. Included with the 4.6% increase in tax for the wealthy, is a 3% tax increase for most of the middle class – about $2,600 for a family of four – could that be the tipping point?
  • If the Tea Party holds Medicare hostage and Congress doesn’t pass the Medicare “doc-fix” by the end of 2011, something that has been passed every year for almost half a century, doctor and hospital reimbursements will be reduced by 27%. Will your doctor accept Medicare? Will that be the tipping point for millions of our seniors who are barely making ends meet?
  • Gas prices are rising again. Will that tip us?
  • The rising price of rents?
  • Next year’s expected Health Insurance co-pay increases?
  • The rising average credit card rates, fees and penalties? Or debit card charges?
  • Or will it be just one more group of layoffs that causes consumption to drop just enough for business to grind to a halt?
  • Or maybe it will just be something simple happening to one more family. A child who comes home sick from school that causes you to miss work that gets you fired? A speeding ticket that must be paid and causes you to miss a payment on a credit card that causes the rates on all your cards to go to 33.65%, plus late payments and interest on late payments, that can never be caught up? Or your furnace goes out? Or will a parent lose their job and helping them puts your family in the economic spiral?  Or, God forbid, you lose your spouse?

Just a few years ago, the monthly budget’s rounding error for the middle class near-poor was in the hundreds. Now, every penny is counted. They had a stack of credit cards with zero interest rates and seemingly unlimited credit lines. An unexpected expense would just go on the card. Since that time, home values have shrunk and with it, credit lines and flexibility.

The middle class near-poor may not look much different at a casual glance. They may decorate trees for Christmas, but they’ll wrap empty gifts under the tree. 2011 will be another year when Christmas giving will be postponed or homemade. The middle class near-poor are just one more bad thing away from the bottom and none of us are prepared for how to make it there. There is no longer any social safety net. The food kitchens are full and the pantries emptying more quickly than filled. Our government has borrowed all they will borrow and nothing else is expected until after the fall election, or the next.

How long will it take to recover? If all things go well, and they may not, the US economy will take a decade or more just to get back to where we were when Bush left. Another decade to get back to where we were when Clinton left. Given the life expectancy in poverty, two decades will go a long way toward wiping out poverty. The economy can come back more quickly, but only if and only when everyone can have a job and be back in the economy as consumers.

Trying not to leave this story on a gloomy note, there are things you can do.

  • You can join the 99%, occupy and march on Washington and call for repealing laws that caused the grotesque financial inequity in our nation.
  •  You can demand your Congress person do every stinking little thing they can do or spend to get rid of the extra weights on the middle class, the near-poor and those already in poverty. Tell them to stop listening to lobbyists and do what is right for the people they should be representing. Tell them to shut up with the election year fear mongering on issues meaningless to the economy and do something good before we vote them out of office.  Tell them specifically to vote for what’s left of Obama’s jobs initiative, for extension of jobless benefits, extension of the payroll tax cuts, the Medicare “doc-fix” and making permanent the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. Tell them to keep their hands off of Wall Street reform that protects American consumers. Tell them to stop trying to undermine health care reform, but be part of the Congress that will fix it. Tell them to break up the companies too large and with too many lobbyists to fail. Tell them to end special breaks for dirty industries. Tell them to quit wasting money on wars we don’t pay for. Tell them to keep investing in schools and re-training. And most of all, tell them to get to work on the peoples’ business.
  • Watch for the warning signs and stay in touch with those friends who seem to drop out of your circle – they’ll need your friendship.
  • Volunteer and help those who need it now.
  • Get involved with non-profits – each of which is still reeling from the terrible economy and from Bush ending the inheritance tax, but that’s another story. Help people who can’t find work to start a small businesses and teach them how to make it successful. Help feed the hungry. Help teach, mentor and take care of children. Get involved to help seniors and the disabled.
  • If you are in the top 30%, keep giving to charities which help people. Put some of your money toward micro-loans to launch new small businesses.
  • If you are a 1% executive, it is time to fire your lobbyist, take a pay cut and use the money to hire people who need jobs – especially those who have been out of work for a while or been fighting our wars.
  • If you think you are at the tipping point, reach out to agencies who can help you land more softly and not on the street.

Lessons from the Street

When the guy approached in the strip center parking lot early one Saturday morning and told me his story, I fell for it. He said he had driven all night from Ohio with his family, had no money and ran out of gas. We walked to his car, saw his family and the cynic in me, checked his license tag. He just needed $20 and he’d be able to buy gas and get home. I gave it to him. So did my wife later that day when she came to return what I’d bought. When we shared the stories, we felt like chumps.

Then there was that day when the visibly upset women approached my wife in another strip center early one evening. The woman told the story of leaving her husband who beat her. My wife walked with her to the old car and was introduced to the precious, poorly dressed children. She fell for it and gave her money. When she saw the same woman the next day and was approached again, she felt deeply betrayed.

Then there was that time when a homeless man came to our door and asked for help. We gave him money and food under the condition he never come to our house again. He returned the next day. And the next. He said he wanted to work for the money and food and offered to wash our car. My wife, in a moment of tough love and generosity, told him she’d give him $10 to wash our daughter’s car that had been parked for months and desperately needed it. He, of course, washed our car – the clean car. When he came back the next day, he said he was cold and I gave him one of my coats. The next morning he was at our doorstep again. This time, he said, “I really don’t like this coat. Do you have anything else?” He went on to say that he was ready to go to the shelter we had suggested and if we’d give him a ride to where the bus would take him, he’d go. Half way there, he said, “Damn. I left my cigarettes in your coat.” So, of course, we drove back to our home, retrieved the smokes that he could afford even though he couldn’t afford food and took him to the bus stop. As he was getting out, the man, well, passed gas. I said to my wife, “at least he left us a little something to remember him by.”

We all have stories. When someone needs help, and we can, most of us do. But are we really helping?

A few years ago, a friend had cards printed with addresses and phone numbers of shelters and organizations who help the homeless. He’d tape a MARTA token on it (MARTA no longer uses tokens and MARTA cards are expensive).

Another friend, Clay, kept a box of energy bars in his trunk to give to people who were hungry. He explained to me that helping the homeless should be left to professionals. That it was way too complicated, and potentially dangerous, for individuals to get involved.

When I first moved near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, being the liberal do-gooder that I am, or pretend to be, I’d stop and engage each person that I thought was homeless. I got to know dozens of men (women don’t do well living in Piedmont Park). I began as a naïve missionary. Each day I’d go for my walks with a budgeted amount of money to hand out if asked and cards or literature on shelters and programs that teach men how to get off the street. One by one, I saw that these men who had asked for my money for transportation shelter or food, instead, spent it on beer. Each would eventually get arrested for public drinking or drunkenness. I don’t give money anymore.

For a while, I’d tell homeless men, if they were hungry, I’d feed them. My wife and I quickly turned into a short order cooks. I also stopped that idea – it was impossible to sustain. Though, and as result of the leftovers from LikeTheDew.com’s Deviled Egg Recipe Contest judging, they did ask me, “why did all those deviled eggs taste so different?” They also offered their votes, which were not included in the contest judging.

Over the years, some of the homeless men would come and never be seen again, but others seem to live in the park permanently. I gave them clothes when they needed them, until they started asking too often and I had to stop. Ditto on razors, soap, and dental supplies. Ditto sleeping bags, tarps, blankets, phone cards, MARTA cards and the like. And then, I met Donnie.

Donnie painting Tee ShirtsDonnie was special. He didn’t belong in the park. He was in his late twenties. He had worked as an artist and animator and lost his job. Got depressed and started drinking or doing drugs and lost his family. He was clean now and you could see it in his face. The guy had more charisma and charm than almost anyone I’d ever met. He didn’t ask for it, but one day I bought him a business: paints, brushes, a portable easel, a few dozen blank tee-shirts and a backpack to carry them. Donnie was like a kid at Christmas. He went to work painting the most incredible original art on shirts. He sold them in the park. I told him that when he ran out of shirts, I’d re-stock him and I did. Donnie sustained his life and saved some of the money he made to start over. Then one night, the inevitable happened. He was robbed. When I next saw Donnie, he didn’t ask me to buy him another art kit. He told me, instead that he had called his mother in Alabama and asked if he could come home. She wired him the money for bus fare. He just wanted to say thank you and good-bye. I still hear from him from time to time through his cousin. He now has a job, a place of his own and is still close to his mom and family.

Then there was Terrell. Terrell was also special. When I met him, he was living with a girlfriend and was working in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. Every few days, he’d prepare a meal, with ingredients donated by his restaurant, and serve it picnic style in the park to some of those, less fortunate. We admired his sharing nature and also contributed. I don’t know if was drugs or booze, but Terrell had a dramatic falling out with the restaurant. He also had one with his girlfriend and started calling the park his home.

Terrell was in his early thirties. Healthy. Smart. And motivated. The park was just temporary. He approached people who lived in the neighborhoods around the park and asked to do odd-jobs – yard work and the like. It worked for a while, but wasn’t enough to get him on his own. My wife and I befriended Terrell. We even broke the cardinal rule and invited him and his new girlfriend into our home. We got him a cell phone from the federal program. We helped him get an apartment with an organization that helped couples get off the street. The apartment deal was pretty straightforward: he was expected to work and pay $100 a month. He also was required to have regular drug testing. He made it on his own the first month. His girlfriend left him the second month and we helped out with the money he needed for rent. The third month he was back in the park. Terrell, we learned, couldn’t – and didn’t want to – pass the drug test. That was almost two years ago. Terrell has been arrested five or six times since then – three times in one month alone – stupid stuff – drinking on the bench near 10th Street and jaywalking. He’s lost about 50 pounds and his eyes are always glazed over.

We don’t have much to do with Terrell, but some months back, he approached me and told me a story. He said that he’d heard about a doctor who would diagnose him as bipolar and about a lawyer who could then get him disability. Disability, plus food stamps were his plan to get his life together. In exchange for a couple of hundred dollars a month, he would never be able to get a real job again – the price of disability. I begged him to reconsider and get help. I saw Terrell last week. He has been approved for disability.

Then there was last week. I met this kid standing near our little midtown grocery store. He was hungry and I walked him inside and bought him a sandwich. I’m sure you have seen him, too. Early twenties. Hair long and unkept. Sad and lonely expression on his face. Layers of dirty clothes with his shirts out. His pants were so low that at least six inches of his underwear was showing. I’m no snob. I’m all for individual expression – in fact, I am sure that many would suggest I have my own unique “style.” But I couldn’t help thinking while I was talking to this young man, “no one will ever get a good job with underwear showing.” (Note: I know that for some of you, this is straight line and there’s some joke that might suggest that is not true for the opposite gender – not PC.)

As strange as it sounds, I sometime fantasize about how to solve the homeless problem. I daydream of getting donated land and building a new form of inexpensive and efficient housing. I consider little things, like lockers to protect what they have. More public bathrooms. Utilizing some of the empty and bankrupt condo buildings. But each time my daydream comes around to one problem that I cannot figure out how to overcome: drugs and booze, which is connected to crime, which is connected to violence. How can it be solved?

Leave it to the professionals. Leave it and support those organizations that help large numbers of people survive, while each night having a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Leave it and support those organizations that help one person at a time learn how to believe in themselves and society again. Google or Bing it, search terms: (your city) and homeless shelters. If you are in the Atlanta area, contact the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. They also have a 24-hour help line. Or the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency.

Or, at the very minimum, follow our friend Clay’s example and give them an energy bar.