Oh Yeah, Times are Still Tough

While others struggle, most of us are doing OK ...

It’s easy to forget, living where we do, that times are still very tough out there for a lot of people. I was reminded of this several times last week.

At the beginning of the week, I heard from a friend – I’ll call her Cheryl – who is (was) a stay-at-home mother of three sons. She and her family used to rent a second-floor apartment next door to us. Our kids had a lot of fun playing together in the neighborhood and Cheryl and I passed many hours chatting while we supervised the kids and watched out for cars.

Eventually, the house next door changed owners and the rent went up. Cheryl tried desperately to continue renting somewhere else in our town, but it was complicated. In order to make rent and cover all the other bills, she was sharing living space with her three kids, her new husband and her ex-husband. Needless to say, she needed a good-sized apartment.

After a long search, she found nothing she could afford here, and so reluctantly moved out of town. Around the same time, the other two adults in her household lost their jobs. And then, for a while, there were no cars either. Cars are expensive to maintain, what with repairs and insurance, even with unemployment benefits.

Cheryl appreciated the safety net that unemployment provided, but it wasn’t enough. She wasted no time in searching for work and took the only job available: working the night shift at a Home Depot that was several towns away from where she now lived. Unfortunately, no buses run directly from her new apartment to the place where she worked. So she walked: five miles to work in the evening, and five miles home (ten hours later) in the early morning.

When she got home, her older kids were just heading off to school, but the four-year old wanted Mommy. Sleep is a luxury Cheryl does not often indulge in. 

As grueling as this sounds, all of this was actually OK with her. But then, just recently, Home Depot cut its employee shifts down across the board. Cheryl is panicked because eight hours a week will not feed her family. Her ex is working intermittently and her husband has developed health issues that have impacted his ability to find steady work. Unemployment, even with the extensions, has run out.

“I could understand,” she told me, “if Home Depot was really in dire financial straights. But they just spent a lot of money upgrading the employee break room so that it is now equipped with an Xbox and a flat screen TV. Nobody cares about that stuff. They need their shifts to feed their families.”

“If there is money, why is this happening?” I asked her.

“If the payroll costs look low, the managers will get better bonuses,” she explained. “Anyway, I’ve started making calls about food stamps ...” 

There are certainly families right here in Belmont who struggle the same way that Cheryl and her family are struggling. But it’s easy to forget this is the case, what with so many of our youngsters sporting Uggs and North Face jackets while texting on their smart phones.

The disparity hit me again over the weekend.

On Saturday night, my sixth grader played a basketball game against the 6th grade team from another less affluent suburb. Our team prevailed 36 to 9. As we exited our middle school gym, I held the door for the visiting coach and I told him his team had fought hard and hung in there, regardless of what the final score implied.

“It’s so frustrating,” he replied. “I have girls with talent, many of them are amazing athletes, but I can’t get them out to these games, or to practice. It’s not like your town.”

He had noticed all of the parents that were in attendance in our home team stands. And I can confirm that most of our players had not just one, but both parents present in the stands. Grandparents were there, as well.

“There’s no support for the kids I coach. I just can’t seem to get the parents involved,” he said. “It’s tough in our city.”

I know parents all around are scrounging just to make a living.  For many of them, ferrying club-trained teenagers to basketball games or ice skating parties is a form of leisure beyond their grasp, even if it feels like work to us.

Compared to many, we have it kind of easy.

Matt Sullivan January 31, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Great letter Lisa! Sorry to hear about your friend and what she's going through at Home Depot. I know it's tough for many people to stay in town when home owners raise rents. Many people are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. Overrides and dept exclusion play a HUGE part in landlords decision to raise rents on tenants.
Stacey Hammerlind January 31, 2012 at 03:35 PM
I love this column Lisa, thank you! Yesterday I was talking to a woman I work with who works 40 hours there AND another 30 at a different faciility. and she has a 3 year old with sickle cell who is in & out of the hospital. I don;t mean this as a "my tragic story can top your tragic story" but because since I spoke with her yesterday I have been pondering the Uggs and the Northface Jackets and the "Luxury Troubles" we get to complain about. ...I wish I knew what I could do to possibly help these other moms/parents. Great column Lisa
Johanna Swift Hart February 01, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Matt, there needs to be a balance between the incremental costs passed on to renters and the potentially debilitating impact on our home values if we continue to under-fund our schools and let Belmont's streets, sidewalks, buildings and utilities fall into disrepair and even decay. Prop 2 1/2 was never intended as a 2.5% cap on municipal budgets but rather a means of voter/ taxpayer control over the rate of growth. I know I'll never convince you, but I appreciate that we can agree to disagree on this issue -- and that you post under your real name!


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