Stories from the struggle

A quarter of the city lives below the poverty line. But these aren't their stories.

Money wallet
Times were tight for many Philadelphians above the poverty line before the coronavirus came calling. In the continuation of PW’s Struggles series, we had a few share how they got through the day-to-day. | Image: Allef Vinicius

It started with one story that was able to blossom into several.

Our first idea for a Struggles series came in 2018 when a former colleague of a Philadelphia Weekly journalist told the story of how he survived week to week on the money he’d overdraft from his own bank account just to stay afloat until his next payday. He, like many Philadelphians, has a steady job where he made a living wage, was able to afford a place to live and buy groceries, but has, as he put it, “not much past that.” 

His story is no longer shocking but instead sad that this is the reality for many living in the poorest big city in America. In a city, where roughly 26 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to data from a 2019 fact sheet from the Pew Charitable Trusts, there’s not much separating the larger majority hovering beyond that bracket than a job that could cancel them at any moment.

But the defining correlation within this compilation of stories is the immense resiliency of city residents to work the system, even to the benefit of themselves and their families. We applaud the folks who have taken the brave step of sharing their story, with the goal of letting the rest of Philly know that they aren’t the only ones living in the day-to-day struggle. 

We’d like for this to grow. If you have a unique way of providing under difficult circumstances, please share them with us. Share your story with us via mail@philadelphiaweekly.com and we’ll follow up. The more of these we hope to share, the more we hope to impress upon the powers that can create change that they can’t help but listen, and act, to help Philadelphians live a life without stress. 

Read the original Struggles features here and here, or via BrokeinPhilly.com

Begging for my own money back

Every month, without fail, I’m on the phone with my bank begging for my own money back. But to understand how I get to this point, perhaps I should tell you how I get into this predicament each month. I work retail for a local company downtown. I’m embarrassed to say this but I only make $11.50 an hour, and that’s before taxes. I live alone with my son, who just turned 7 in February. My son is autistic and needs to be regularly seen by doctors and is on a medicine regimen that each month, even with my healthcare from my job, can cost hundreds in copays. 

“Some [customer service representatives] will look at my account and see that I really can use the money and offer up the overdraft fees, while some [representatives] just say there is nothing they can do about it, which I know is bullshit.”

Needless to say, I overdraft a lot, but I’m fortunate to have overdraft protection, which is hilarious to say fortunate because it’s anything but. My bank will cover me in overdrafts up to $200, at $35 per overdraft. So many times I’ll go to the bank and just withdraw the $200 and live on the cash just so I don’t have to incur multiple overdraft fees as I use that $200. 

Sometimes, I’m calling the bank asking for them to waive the overdraft fees so it doesn’t hit my next paycheck. I feel like it really depends who I get on the phone to be honest, as some people will look at my account and see that I really can use the money and offer up the overdraft fees, while some [representatives] just say there is nothing they can do about it, which I know is bullshit.

A new month and the cycle continues. I just feel like I’m stuck in a rut. I don’t have a college degree, I have my [high school] diploma but I’ve only ever worked in [customer] service jobs so I don’t know how to really do anything else. I’m almost 34 years old and the embarrassment of still being an associate at a store where your co-workers are almost 10 years younger than you is something that is really sad.

– Tanisha S. | West Philadelphia

Editor’s note: In a follow-up with Tanisha, she tells Philadelphia Weekly, she was given a furlough from her job after her store was deemed non-essential. She’s currently looking for other opportunities. 

We talk to a Philadelphian who says his life can be measured by the amount of change he keeps in a jar at any given time.| Image provided

Change is good, sometimes

My money comes in ebbs and flows. I’m a seasonal worker and my spring and summer months are better than fall and winter. I have to survive on what I get during those months. I don’t spend much on myself, and I live alone, but there have been those occasions where I’m running really low. That’s when I resort to my change jar. Well, it’s less a jar and more of a change jug. 

I’m not set up for the future. I have no retirement plan, no savings, and as I said, I’ve survived for five of the last 39 years on this planet working a position that depends on nice days and warm temperatures. So the winter months, especially after the holidays, usually take their toll, I find myself in dire straits. I’ve taken my jug to the bank to exchange for cash and I just feel like they look at me like I’m a loser. I don’t know, maybe it’s all in my head. 

My wife was the primary breadwinner in our home and she never let me forget it. When we finally split in 2010, she said, “I’ll always be this way and that’s not someone she sees herself with.” Here I thought marriage was for better or worse, but as soon as things took a turn for the worse she took off. In the long run, I’m better off as the nagging has stopped and, honestly, I couldn’t afford her lifestyle anyway, but she lives in the home I helped build while I went to an apartment I was only able to land through having a longtime friend co-sign the lease with me on. 

“I’m not set up for the future. I have no retirement plan, no savings, and as I said, I’ve survived for five of the last 39 years on this planet working a position that depends on nice days and warm temperatures.”

It’s a tough way to live. I have handyman skills but no one will hire me because of my record. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, I spent time in [SCI] Chester for being a knucklehead in my younger years and you guessed it, I’m still paying for it. 

That change jug has been the one constant in my life. It was pretty full while I was married and being a bit of a coin enthusiast I’ve been accumulating any change I get and dumping it into it. It’s funny, whenever I look at it or am forced to tap it, I’ll look at how full or low that jug is. I find the level it’s at has always been an accurate representation of my life at any given moment. 

– Scott R. | Whitman

While credit cards provide a leg up during insecure times, they can also ruin one’s financial future as explained by this Elkins Park resident. | Image provided

Cursed by credit

It’s crazy, but it took me almost half of my adult life to realize that credit is one of those evil necessities depending on your situation. But I feel like a slave to it as I know one false move and I could lose everything. I’m constantly on the phone with credit card companies transferring balances from one account to another before I incur charges.

I’m in my eighth year of paying on a vehicle I was supposed to have paid off in just five years, and I know that once it’s paid off it’s going to fall to pieces, but as a home health nurse, I travel a lot. I have two kids I support on my own and they’re too young to get jobs and support themselves. 

I don’t want to get into it, my life story, but I appreciate that there are people like me going through the same thing. I don’t have much of a savings but I’ve clawed tooth and nail to get my once-awful credit back to a standing that I can have a decent limit to at least survive if I were to lose my job and it took a while to find another one.

But it’s the last thing I want to have to use as a fall back crutch. To be honest, how fast it went from missing a few payments that put my credit standing in the 500s vs. how long it took to have a 704 is proof that its survival of the fittest and it’s really a pit against the haves and have nots. 

I look at where I am and I have a decent job, I’m able to buy groceries, but because of kids, I’m living paycheck to paycheck. It wouldn’t take long for me to be in a bad way out here if I were to lose my job. I’m fortunate enough that my position is one where I’m taking care of older people and there’s always work. It’s no joke out here, life is hard for everyone but I feel sometimes, that it’s designed to be that way for whatever reason. 

– Samantha S. | Elkins Park

Editor’s note: In a follow-up conversation with Samantha in April, she told PW that her job has been placed on short-term furlough as the health-care agency she works for was forced to lay off staff due to coronavirus concerns. She hasn’t needed to use her credit card yet as she’s home with children for the foreseeable future and their activities have been halted. 

Broke in Philly tag

Philadelphia Weekly, is a part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 23 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia’s push toward economic justice. Read more of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.