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Caught between a rock and a pizza box

Submitted by on Saturday, 24 January 2009 No Comment
By all accounts, the LeBlanc family was doing a lot of things right.

Their mortgage payment is $440 a month on a five-bedroom home in Lafayette, La., a figure the likes of which I haven't seen since my own $350 mortgage 18 years ago. They have four children and no credit-card debt.

Husband Rob made $55,000 a year managing a truck-stop restaurant, and wife Donna thought of going to college and pursuing a degree in biology.

And then the bottom dropped out. Pinched by rising fuel prices, truckers quit eating at restaurants as often. The two truckers in my family rarely eat out anyway unless they get a really great discount with a fuel purchase, instead relying on an in-cab refrigerator, Crock Pot and microwave for their meals.

Last summer, Rob was laid off. He drew unemployment for a while as he was rejected for job after job because he was either under- or over-qualified.

Pushed to the wall by $45,000 in medical bills, Rob took the only job being offered:  Delivering for Domino's until dawn for $10 an hour. Donna went to work as an exterminator.

They cut back on entertainment - no more cable - and the kids' allowances and made it. Friday, a better job came through for Rob.

While I wouldn't call this a success story - $10 an hour is not sustainable pay for a family - it is a successful survival story, particularly in a day when survival is the best some families can hope for.

Yet, there are those all too eager to blast people who still are in there trying.

"What in the world were these people doing with their money? Methinks this is a situation where the mother didn't work until the dad lost his job and she was forced to get a job," one commenter said at cnn.com.

"And how in the world did they rack up $45K in medical bills?! Did they not have medical insurance? If not, that's extremely stupid, especially with four kids."

OK, let's answer this point by point:

Did the mother work? With four children, most assuredly she did, day in and day out. Did she have paid employment outside the home before the father lost his job? The story didn't say, but so what if she didn't. Isn't it funny how people want to blast mothers as lazy when they don't work outside the home and as selfish when they do have jobs. Methinks women just can't win.

Did they have medical insurance? Probably not, and that doesn't make them stupid.

Starbucks aside, the service industry is notorious for not offering benefits. And, remember, Rob had already been laid off when the medical bills hit. Even if he'd had benefits when employed, COBRA simply is not an affordable, realistic option for most workers.

Where did their money go?

The taxes come out first, and just the feds are going to take at least $3,188. Including a rough estimate on state taxes and Social Security through a calculator at paycheckcity.com, Rob's take-home every other week would have been $1,700 on a $55,000 salary.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says  it would cost $980 a month to feed a family of six with children the ages of the LeBlanc kids. And that's based on the "thrifty" plan, which the government uses to set food stamp allowances. It works nutritionally, but it takes a lot of work in planning and preparation.

Monthly clothing costs would come to $220, according to a table at the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service Web site. OK, so maybe that's a bit high because you don't usually need warm parkas in Louisiana, but it's not going to be that far off.

There's the $440 mortgage payment.

Factor in health care, education and transportation costs based on the University of Minnesota data and the family's down to around $1,300 a month to cover everything else.

Do-able? Definitely, and the LeBlancs were doing it and saving.

Do-able on unemployment? Not really.

Do-able on $10 an hour? Not for long.

The LeBlancs are a shining example of doing what has to be done to survive. In the long-run though, American families - and American single folks, for that matter - deserve better out of an economic recovery than being forced into make-ends-meet, low-paying jobs for which they're overqualified.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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