For Dani Winn, it would be a luxury to watch the evening news.
She can’t afford cable television, and her TV, purchased at a thrift store, is so old it doesn’t have a digital tuner.
So she mostly watches her 2-year-old son’s DVDs and VHS tapes, also bought at the thrift store (25 cents a pop on half-price Saturdays).
There’s also the fact she wasn’t able to buy her son Christmas presents this year. Luckily, her friends, relatives and a local church got Maverick some toys and clothes.
“He did well for Christmas, but as a parent you want to be able to buy your child something,” Winn said, shedding tears, on a recent evening at her Hobart apartment. Her son played nearby with a Mr. Potato Head, unaware.
Winn, a 37-year-old single mother, earned about $19,000 last year. That amount puts her above the federal poverty level but leaves her little ability to afford things that many people consider necessities. She has no wiggle room if, say, her car breaks down or she has to miss work because Maverick was sick.
She is a member of Northwest Indiana’s working poor, people who don’t qualify for many government benefits but struggle to provide the basic necessities. It’s a group that the Lake Area United Way plans to focus on over the next decade or so, finding strategies to help them continue working while, at the same time, get by. In 2014, United Way published a national report on the challenges facing the group, which it classifies as Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, or ALICE.
“These families are forced to make really hard choices every day, choices between getting a prescription filled or putting gas in their car to get to work,” said Lisa Daugherty, president and CEO of Lake Area United Way. “Because they’re living on the edge, they simply can’t afford all of their household necessities. Those hard choices are what we hope to develop strategies to ease.”
The household survival budget for Lake County, an amount that allows for no savings, is $53,981 for two parents with an infant and toddler and $18,138 for a single adult, according to the ALICE report.
One in 4 Lake County households fall into that category. That doesn’t include the 16 percent who earn less than the federal poverty level, which is $11,770 for an individual or $24,250 for a family of four. The median household income in the county is $48,120. In addition, Lake is tied with Porter and Newton counties for having the most expensive rental housing in the state.
Jessica Fraser, program manager for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, noted that wages have not kept up with the cost of living in recent years and that public benefits, such as child care assistance, often cut off completely once a person goes above a certain income level. She said it would be
optimal if government programs all worked like the earned income tax credit, which gives subsidies on a sliding scale.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the poor,” she said. “People automatically assume they don’t want to work. They automatically assume they’ve done something wrong. It’s so much more complicated than that.”
An example for her son
Winn, for instance, loves her job. She teaches adults with developmental disabilities at the day program at Tradewinds, a social service organization in Hobart. She says she’d keep working there even if she won the lottery.
Tradewinds helps her in other ways. Her son has gotten low-cost day care there since he was 8 week old, allowing her to go back to work. Hobart Single Mom from Pg. 3
It also rents her an apartment in Hobart at an affordable rate. That enabled her to move out of a trailer in Gary, where she was afraid to let her son play outside. One time, when they lived there, they were getting out of the car when Maverick picked something off the ground, quickly put it in and out of his mouth and said, “Look, Mom.” It was a bullet.
Winn realizes that, because of the eligibility guidelines for many government benefits, she could probably live just as comfortably not working. She knows of one person who couldn’t pass a pre-employment drug test and now gets $500 a month in food stamps. By the time she pays her bills, Winn has $200 left for groceries — for the entire month. “That doesn’t really go very far,” she said.
But she wouldn’t want to set a bad example for Maverick.
“He has to see that you might not have everything you want, but if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, even if you have to save for it, you can have nice things,” she said. “When you do good, good comes back. Us being able to live here is proof of that.”
She continued, “When things are too readily available, people take it for granted and don’t appreciate it as much. I’d rather have him think you have to work hard rather than have things handed to him.”
Trying to get ahead
Winn previously went to nursing school for three semesters but had to drop out to care for her sick mother, who has since died. She defaulted on her student loans, and even if she cleared that up, going back to college, while continuing to work and caring for Maverick, seems a daunting prospect. She could potentially take classes online, but doesn’t have a computer or Internet access at home. She’d love to earn a social services degree, which would open up opportunities to advance at Tradewinds.
The only government assistance she gets is for child and health care for Maverick. She goes to food pantries. She hasn’t seen a doctor since Maverick was born, three years ago, despite the fact she has asthma. She also needs dental work she can’t afford.
To spread out her grocery budget, she buys a bunch of meat on the day of expiration, then has the same meal for a weeks at a time. She and Maverick eat a lot of hot dogs and bologna. When she mentioned this on a recent day at her home, Maverick said, “Hot dog! Hot dog!” She handed him one right out of the fridge; he likes to eat them uncooked.
Despite her struggles, Winn chooses to focus on the positives.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have the options I have: the friends, the family, the job, the people at work,” she said.
And a healthy, happy 2-year-old son, bouncing on a trampoline, a few feet away.
It’s not easy to see the pain and uncertainty behind the ear-to-ear smiles of Robert and Ebony Edmond.
The couple, in their late 20s, were born deaf.
They are doing their best to raise their three children, 5-year-old Dasia, 4-year-old Jayanna and 18-month-old Robert, in a loving and stable family.
But it’s a task that gets more challenging each day.
The family, which lives in a modest housing complex in Hammond, are an example of Lake Area United Way’s Edge of Survival campaign to assist families struggling to afford basic everyday needs.
Robert Edmond has been working part-time at UPS in Hodgkins, Illinois, for almost two years as a material handler. He beams when he talks about his work, from handling large packages to the small, very detailed ones. And while his employer has offered him a full-time position, he can’t take it because it would mean losing his disability benefits.
Communicating by sign language through an interpreter, Robert Edmond’s smile fades when he talks about his family’s struggles.
“We want to show our kids that we are hard workers and good parents that want the best for our kids like everyone else,” Robert signed. “It’s hard enough for people that are down on their luck, but factor in that we are disabled, there aren’t many opportunities for us to get ahead.”
His wife, Ebony, has been seeking employment for years to no avail.
“It’s hurtful when people won’t even give you a chance because they are so worried about the communication factor,” Ebony Edmond signed. “They don’t even give us a chance, and it’s very painful because we want to contribute.”
Ebony Edmond would love nothing more than to find employment, but the child-care cost remains an issue for them. Her family is in Park Forest; Robert’s is in Gary and they are without transportation.
“It’s so frustrating because food stamps aren’t enough,” Robert Edmond signed. “Clothes are so expensive and food (costs) for our entire family will keep rising as our children get older.”
Robert Edmond remains hopeful. He was able to set up an interview for his wife. But landing a job will come at a cost.
“She’s had a hard time getting a job in Lake County, so I was forced to take things into my own hands,” Robert Edmond signed. “It’s going to be a challenge as I would have to work the first shift and Ebony will have to work the fourth shift so that we could share the responsibilities of caring for our children. That is very important for us.”
Communication between husband and wife is natural, and at times surprising, like when Robert left the room to look for a remote. When Ebony found it first, she flickered the lights indicating for him to return to the living room.
The two girls, Dasia and Jayanna, attend Jefferson Elementary. The Edmonds are grateful for school uniforms, cutting down on clothing costs.
Her parents said Dasia is an independent thinker and gets her schoolwork done with minimal help.
There are concerns about the educational development with the three children. As they get older and the work more challenging, Robert and Ebony Edmond find it harder to help. Their youngest, Robert, attends speech and physical therapy twice a week through a program offered by Tradewinds. His parents said he would benefit from full-time services, but financial and transportation issues make it impossible.
“Our biggest challenge is simply survival,” Robert Edmond signed. “Now with the kids growing, they have more needs. We want to remain independent, but it’s so hard to get ahead.”
The Edmonds can write and communicate effectively, but “it’s getting the chance that’s so difficult.” They are continually asked so many questions about their challenges. Many “are not appropriate and often embarrassing.”
“The unemployment rate is so high for those with disabilities,” Ebony Edmond signed. “We just want to be treated normally. We are able.”
The family is thankful for Deaf Services and resources such as Tradewinds and the United Way that have helped them with services. Robert and Ebony Edmond communicate to others through a videophone with the help from an interpreter on the other end.
The Edmonds do all they can with their children, including family visits and trips to the park. Robert Edmond said that money is always an issue, but they try and take advantage of free or nominal-fee activities.
“Robert and Ebony are excellent parents that are very inspiring,” said Debbie Pampalone, Deaf Services Inc. director. “They are very hardworking and show great commitment to their family. It’s very tough for people with disabilities to get opportunities and even though we have come a long way, we still have so far to go yet.”