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Julia Cass reports for CDF from Evart, Michigan
The Nailors don’t fit the old image of a poor family. They live in a house with a yard in a small town in Middle America—the sort of place that might have been featured in a Norman Rockwell painting. They are the new face of poverty. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of children in Michigan live in poverty today, according to the 2010 Kids Count Data Book for the state. The rate is even higher—up to 35 percent—in rural counties in central Michigan like Osceola, where Evart is located.
Day to day, this means that John and his wife Sarah are “on a budget so tight we are down to dimes and pennies” by the end of the month, he said. For food, they eat “just the basics except maybe one meal a month where I’ll cook something super special like shrimp,” she said. They have no cable television. “We can’t afford it! No way!” John said. They never go out to eat or take trips. The childrens’ toys are mostly second hand, and their clothes are hand-me-downs that John got through freecycle.org, an international website with local groupings that trade items for free. About 300 people in Osceola and three neighboring counties, undoubtedly struggling like the Nailors, are in their group, exchanging household items, furniture, toys, clothes and even foods like fresh eggs. If not for the Earned Income Tax Credit, he said, they wouldn’t have anything new at all.
“Amanda and Emily are young so they don’t realize how poor we are,” Sarah said. “But when they get older…” She did not finish the sentence.
The Nailors are deeply worried about the future because they don’t know what else to do. Anyplace but Evart would be more expensive because they live in a house owned by Sarah’s mother and don’t have to pay rent. Their computer repair business is struggling—and they started the business because John couldn’t get a decent job. “The business made just $1,900 over the past three months and summer’s usually the best time,” he said. “Now comes winter when it’s slower.”
The Nailors retreated to Evart when Sarah got pregnant with Amanda and they’d both become frustrated with the job market in Grand Rapids, the largest city in the area. “Granted there were jobs there but so many people looking for them it was hard,” he said. John graduated from high school and went to a technical school to become a certified computer technician. He said he has loved computers and worked on them since he was 14.
A telling moment came when he saw a Help Wanted sign in the window of a computer repair store in Grand Rapids. He put in an application. As he walked out the door, a man with an NEC decal on his work suit came in and asked for an application. “I knew there was no way I was going to get that job,” John said. “NEC is a major computer builder for businesses. I knew he had more credentials than I did.”
Sarah, who moved to Grand Rapids after high school, held a series of jobs with ever lower pay. The best was at a bank where she handled applications for credit cards. When that bank sold out to another bank, she lost the job but got some severance pay. She used it to go to culinary arts school. “I thought it would be great but I ended up with low paying jobs in food service. I didn’t have the experience for fine dining, and there was more competition.” Like many other employees in fast food restaurants, she didn’t always get a full 40 hours a week and kept looking for something better. “Then my having gone from job to job worked against me because they saw me as not stable. But I’m a very hard worker and I enjoy work.” She’d worked after school in her father’s real estate office when she was in high school, she said, and helped care for her grandfather when he got Alzheimer’s.
In Evart, Sarah stayed home with the new baby and John worked wherever he could, mostly cleanup type jobs with temp services. That didn’t bring in enough steady money so they applied for cash assistance. One of its requirements is going regularly to a Michigan Works office that offers job training and help with job searches, resumes and work skills. Recipients must show that they are actively seeking work. The Nailors received cash assistance for about a year.
“Then they changed the rules,” John said. “You had to put in qualified applications. If you didn’t put in applications to places that were actually hiring, not just maybe hiring in the future, you would be put off. I thought, ‘Forget that! There’s no way. This is Michigan! Nobody’s hiring!’” He quickly summarized the local employment scene: A factory that hires through temp agencies, which didn’t count. A glass plant that closed and then reopened and gave preference to prior employees. A dairy where you have to have family that works there. Some mom and pops that employ only family. “I told them to keep their cash assistance. I was going to open my own business.”
Nailor Services opened two years ago in a small building downtown that once housed an A & P. The best John can say about it is that “I’m still in business even though we don’t have enough business to get off food stamps.” He fixes computers that people bring in or he goes to their homes. He finds inexpensive programs and parts for his clients and recycles old computers. “People bring me computers they want to get rid of and I break them down and sell the metal and copper. That’s what gets me through the winter.” With Emily going to Head Start this fall, Sarah said she’ll have time to help him.
The Nailors are due soon for a redetermination of their food stamp allotment of $669 a month, John said, and this worries them. “The state’s been cutting a lot for the budget,” he said. A proposal to throw out the earned income tax credit entirely was dropped in the state legislature but lawmakers recently shrank the benefit by about one fourth.
Read more about the new faces of poverty through the “Children of Hard Times” series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Cass.
Julia Cass is a journalist with more than 30 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines and non-profit organizations. She has written extensively about civil rights, poverty and the prison system. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost 20 years, she shared the Pulitzer Prize with other staffers for the paper’s coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. She also received an award for her reporting on the Pennsylvania prison system.
She is the co-author of Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr, published in 1990 by Farrar Straus and Giroux. It won the America Bar Association Award for best writing about the legal system that year and the Lillian Smith Award for writing about the South.
She has also worked as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News and as executive editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English language daily newspaper in Argentina. In addition, she has trained journalists and journalism students in enterprise reporting in Panama and Botswana. Several years ago, she contributed to writing CDF’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline® report. More recently she wrote Held Captive: Child Poverty in America for CDF.
She is now a freelance writer living temporarily in New York City. Her home is in New Orleans, La.