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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Middle Class Workers: Living With Le$$

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, July 06, 2006

I did a bit of visiting during the Independence Day holiday. Usually, I'm far too busy earning a paycheck for any real socialization so the chance to see a few folks and enjoy conversation was most welcome.

As it turned out, it was pretty darned eye-opening, as well.

Working American Family

One of the families I visited is conserving their home heating and cooking gas usage; these full-time American workers owe a balance to a utility firm and the company has declined to make another delivery until the balance is paid. Vehicle fuel prices have heavily impacted this family of commuting parents, and food costs [no food stamp eligibility here], electricity costs, property taxes, and health insurance co-payments all take a toll on the so-called "middle-income" budget. Paycheck deductions, including a 401K contribution, further reduce the actual in-pocket revenue of this family.

As working Americans in decent professions with a child enrolled in a child care center and no cost-cutting child care subsidy, they pay their way, all the way, every day. And they are constantly teetering on the edge of the proverbial one-paycheck-away scenario.

Both partners, who, I should mention, are also active community volunteers, are considering some type of second job in the hope of easing financial pressures. Of course, that will mean less family time....

Classified Low-Income

Another family I visited appeared to be in less dire straits.

The couple isn't married; according to the unemployed female partner, if they were to tie the knot, she would lose many of the government benefits her "disabled" status affords the family. And who can fault the logic? Why would anyone want to relinquish a generous rent subsidy, food stamps, cash benefits, health care programs with no subscriber contribution and extremely low co-payments, free, full-time child care with transportation included and fuel assistance?

There was no evidence of a "low-income struggle;" one partner was fooling around on a very nice computer, while the other showed off some newly purchased items and helped a child fill a backyard wading pool. A modern, cable-connected television was turned on in the living room. The family's two cars were parked outside the door.

Remaining "single head of household" benefits the family in other ways as well. The employed partner's income doesn't come into play when the government is assigning benefits to the woman, nor does it impact the subsidized rent.

Honesty And Entitlement Programs

There are those who, I know, are getting fired up and ready to write in defense of the folks who avail themselves of public assistance programs. And I would agree that there are people relying on state and federal entitlement programs such as temporary transitional assistance, disability revenues, food stamps, fuel assistance, and other, similar programs who are truly deserving and in need and who do not manipulate the public assistance system or commit fraud.

I would not want to see one thin dime or one benefit taken from the people who do not abuse any of the public assistance programs, especially if they were once working Americans who paid into the tax system that funds these endeavors, or if they are employed folks whose earned incomes allow them to participate in certain programs.

Middle Income Workers At Risk

But what is becoming more and more obvious is that the people who are struggling the most, the people most at risk of going hungry and cold, losing their homes, and almost constantly living on the economic edge of financial disaster are not those enrolled in entitlement programs.

The folks enrolled in many of the public assistance programs have more public and private, non-profit agency safety nets in place than a high-wire circus act. And suspected fraud cases are almost never detected or investigated, which I propose means that the incidence of fraud is underreported and under-documented.

The lives of middle class American workers are NOT for sissies.

It's the middle-class employed households that are being stretched to the screaming point. It's the middle-class families that are shelling out, in many cases, between $400 and $600 per month in child care costs. It's the middle-class families that must cut back on social or recreational pursuits so that they can keep enough gasoline in their vehicles to get back and forth to work. It's middle-class families who are told to save for their retirements, put money aside for college educations, and keep about three months income on hand and available in case of a family emergency, such as unexpected job loss. And while they are at it, keep food on the table, the utilities paid, and clothing on the household's collective back.

Do not be late with the almost always escalating property tax payments and keep those house and vehicle insurance premiums paid and up to date. Do not be one week late on a loan payment, no matter what the reason; the working family credit score will plummet and the working family will seriously jeopardize the ability to acquire a home mortgage.


Things have become quite challenging for working families, especially when locally, many, many people work at jobs that pay less than $12 per hour and unsubsidized apartment rents seem comparatively high.

And unless an employer delivered a substantial pay hike when vehicle fuel prices began their ascent last year, employees are trying to make a 2004 wage fit a 2006 cost of living. Let's just say that some financial seams are about to split.

Politically Unpopular

It can be difficult for elected officials to publicly question what is really going on with entitlement programs. They run the risk of being portrayed by the mainstream media as unsympathetic to low-income families, even if some of the questions involve single heads of households having live-in boyfriends who earn good money and park late model cars in subsidized driveways. It is not deemed politically wise put a spotlight on those deemed "disabled" who manage to be fit enough to earn money on the side via "under the table" [as in "untaxed" and "unreported"] employment.

An Honest Dollar...

But would it be political suicide to pay a little attention, offer a little sympathy, maybe propose a program or two, for the working class American? Child care tax credits are helpful once a year but do very little to help out with day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month budgets. Opportunities to earn within a primary occupation are eroding; some companies are eliminating or greatly reducing overtime potential, raises are being frozen, some companies, such as Verizon, have eliminated pension plans for non-union middle management, and other company cost-cutting, employee income-reducing strategies are in place throughout corporate America.

An honest dollar is getting hard to earn and even harder to keep.

Middle class, working Americans are being forced to do more and more with less and less.

And the advantages of entitlement programs may be very appealing to some.

During my visit, the "significant other" remarked to his partner that she needed to get a job.

Her reponse was quick and emphatic.

"What, and lose free day care? Are you out of your mind?"

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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