But where is part one? Like the Star Wars movies, we will get into part I, the background later on...however I digress.
Its time to add my story to the heap of troubles that the right-wing economic policies of the Depression (don't use the Recession euphemism) of the Twenty-Teens has visited on a once great nation from sea to shining sea
Downward mobility has taken me, have no place to go. Bad luck has taken me, have no money to show...
Go below the fold filigree to witness a tale of a formerly well off elite college degreed professional, from a family that once was able to afford an upper middle class lifestyle, held creative professional positions, now about to hit the floor due to a combination of 30 years of economic decline, a family that has shrunken now to wife and kids, a few bad choices on my part and my family's, and a rotten system that has rewarded sycophancy, financialization, and anti-intellectualism. I am one of the "formerly well offs" that have been discussed at length, a walking wounded casualty from James Howard Kunstler's shrinking middle class, and few hopes of digging out of the hole...without help.
Normally, I would not want to lay bare my (or my family's) soft underbelly, or cry for help, however a half-decade of severe personal economic decline, preceded by several years of stagnation, have finally forced me to the wall. I never thought I would be using food stamps, on Medicaid/Badgercare (along with my wife and children), doing manual labor into my late 40's and beyond, donate plasma, and otherwise scratch out an existence. I did quit the plasma donations due to a combination of cuts in the compensation and botched procedures. It was not even financially viable anyway, I put the income on my 1040, but the 25 mile trip to the facility ensured that I could write it off as a loss after factoring in the federal mileage deduction.
Luckily, I still live in my house for now; however there is a foreclosure court date for December (I have a feeling there is a problem with the loan paperwork or even being able to produce the note; I haven't been able to make any payments for over a year and the law firm representing Bank of America is dragging their feet, so at least I live somewhere for free for now). I am working in my field in ecological and sustainable landscaping, with some fairly specialized skills, but the tiny company I work for has not the demand to have me work full time for the past five years, so I am severely underemployed. I supplement that income when I can with income from my own sole proprietorship, where I do consulting and install and maintain sustainble native landscapes, typically projects too small or out of the way for the company I work for.
It's not just the farmers that have been devastated by the severe drought; however they have federal supports and crop insurance as a safety net; I have none, because if the weather is too hot or dry to plant, or to stimulate plant growth so I can control invasive species, there is no work to be done or to be paid for. Its also a catch 22, because I cannot even go for a lousy retail job with a big box despite their numerous advertisement for help, (I have proven sales experience), or for unskilled assembly jobs, as I am rejected out of hand for being overqualified and over educated. Work in my field is scarce, because nobody is building in Scott Walkers Wisconsin austerity experiment, or planting anything amid the drought. I have yet to see anything from the promised green jobs from our president, though I still support him in consideration that the alternative is far worse...
We are just hanging on by a thread thanks to the government safety nets (that I wish I had the income not to have to rely on, but thankful they are there), they case worker said I should have applied for food stamps months before I finally broke down and applied, and the occasional landscape maintenance job or work here and there from the company or for myself, but the few hundred dollars here, or a few hundred there if we are lucky, plus my wife's unemployment benefits of about $200 a week, and about to run out this fall don't begin to cover the monthly expenses, let alone the mortgage. And the bills go up, never down...and I'm facing a situation I never would have dreamed I'd be facing, ever, as a one time member of the top 5% of the US income distribution.
The slow bleeding and decline has picked up steam lately. A perfect storm of cash flow problems, with acute problems stemming from lack of work from the drought conditions for the past two months, and chronic under/un-employment. four going on five years of unemployment or underemployment with a slow draining of financial resources (aside, I am now a 99er and have only had self employment or contract work for the past five years), and expenses that never go away or go down, and practically no income in June and July, coupled with a horrible combination of late summer expenses, for example where I needed to help with back to school costs for my two teenage daughters, including $400 for college textbooks as my daughter is taking college coursework through the youth options program since classes are limited at her school. The high school does reimburse the textbook costs; however it takes 30 to 60 days for that to happen, and classes begin in 10 days.
August is typically a very expensive month with my girls birthdays and back to school expenses, add on to that the whammy of a huge electric bill due to the previous two record hot weather more typical of Kansas or Oklahoma than Wisconsin, but I am usually busy enough with work to stay (barely) afloat, plus the last few years I had more contract work for my sole proprietorship, while still working as a subcontractor to another firm. Also, fuel prices shot up by 25% over the past month due to the nearby pipeline failures (or at least that was the excuse the oil companies used to jack up the prices).
Options for crawling out of the hole are slim to none at this point, without help from others. My credit is destroyed, so there is no chance of getting financing to enlarge my sole proprietorship business. I have done the best I can to keep up in my field of restoration ecology and sustainable landscaping, and am fairly up to date, but the fierce competition or possibly something deeper has kept me out of the realm of job offers, despite two lengthy and encouraging job interviews this spring and summer. The standard response: we found someone with a better fit for the position. No feedback on the actual reason I wasn’t offered the job, but I have a sinking feeling it was because I am north of 45 years old. The little work I have had includes slow paying clients, and one that I cannot even locate anymore to get a final payment. There is also a colleague that owes me several hundred dollars for helping him with some tree work, but I haven’t been paid by him either due to his not getting payment from the customer. I had a quick and early start in the spring due to the extremely mild weather in March, and had steady work until late May and early June, catching up from the dreaded winter financial black hole. When income totally dies in the winter, we can often defer utility payments, since there is a shutoff moratorium between November 1 and April 1 during the heating season in Wisconsin.
Time ran out today. Despite making a herculean effort to come up with cash to pull me out of the hole, and paying the electric utility, Alliant Energy, over $1,200 in the past 30 days despite income that was only slightly more than that, and income even less during the previous 45-60 days, the electric was shut off today. They wanted $1,500, and of course not on a payday, but the day before payday. No negotiations, would not bend, would not take less than that or split it into two payments over the next two weeks and acted as if they were the only expense I had, even when I talked to a supervisor, who tried to be soothing, but obviously had no sympathy for my plight. Emergency energy assistance has run out in my state; I had already tried that route. We have horribly high electric bills for our house, and I am hoping if and when the power gets turned on I can figure out why.
My prime contractor employer pays me, every other Friday, for work completed during the previous two weeks. I did not even have enough money for gas to get out to my employer to pick up my check and had to borrow $10 from my father in law to get it. It will go against his rent payment (he contributes to the costs of utilities in the house as rent). One payment to the utility of $850 was returned despite having sufficient funds in the account to pay the payment electronically at the time it was presented. For some reason, it took over 4 days to process that payment, and I have a feeling it might have failed because I used the card to put $12 in gas and paid at the pump three days after I submitted the payment on Friday. I found out later that paying at the pump causes an automatic deduction of $75 from the account, which is then reimbursed 1 to 5 days later after the payment processes. What is funny is that paying with the card at the cashier processes the paid amount immediately, no hold. At any rate, I did make up the payment in cash and debit card funds within a couple of days, and I stayed in communication with Alliant during this process.
However, in the meanwhile, there was another meter reading, and the balance went up. Because of the snafu with the payment, I was kicked off their special payment plan (called CA plus), and was delivered an ultimatum to come up with half the entire balance, or $1500. An entire mortgage payment, a whole two weeks of pay as a subcontractor, or a heck of a lot of side jobs. I only had a week to come up with this, but was hesitant to ask for help since I am owed over $1,200 of unpaid invoices, and was expecting over $800 from the prime contractor (who pays on time). I figured somehow I could get it, and if I had a little less I could negotiate with the electric company , or worst case if I missed the payment due by midnight on Thursday, the power would not be shut off until at least Monday (it’s a corporate bureaucracy, things are supposed to proceed slowly; their customer energy assistance department took over 2 weeks to return a phone call). I had made over $1000 in payments over the past 30 days, including $850 just 8 days before the shutoff.
I was at home early this afternoon writing up a report for a natural buffer mitigation site signoff and was just about finished writing the report when about 1:00 this afternoon, only 13 hours after the deadline to pay, the power went down. I was just in the process of moving data processed on my old 32 bit Vista laptop with the broken screen to a flash drive. I had to use floristic quality assessment program which only runs on my old 32 bit Vista laptop (program won’t run on the new Windows 7 x64 one). So, when the power went down, I was SOL. No report to be finished today. I figured it was a power outage and called Alliant and reported it as such. The representative paused for a bit, then informed me the power had been shut off since I missed the deadline. Luckily the wife and kids were gone and are still out this evening with an away game for cheer, although they are aware of the situation. That is cold, almost the worst possible time to have a utility shutoff, and end up waiting until Monday or worse. Its amazing how this proceeded at breakneck speed.
One other option would have been to contact charities and Community Action for emergency help with payments, but having a shutoff on Friday afternoon left me with no time to do so before these closed for the day, given that I had to meet with my contractor boss and get my check. A shutoff at the beginning of the week would have been better...if it had to happen.
I am now at McDonalds writing this since there is no power and hence no internet. I did get my paycheck from the contractor, but only $810 dollars working 40.5 hours in two weeks (if I had been working a full 40+ hours a week, I would not be in this situation now), not nearly enough to make up anywhere near the amount due, and I still need fuel to get to work and job sites. My wife’s unemployment is about to run out and the extension is in doubt at this point. The contractor owner who I work with would have offered help with my bill in exchange for deduction from future payments, but because his work is my work, and he has past due balances from many clients, he is not in a position to help now. He did offer a generator for my use to keep some things powered, but it is a huge thing and I will need to trailer it to my house in the morning. Plus it sucks a lot of gas. It would be much better to get the bill paid off so the power can be turned back on ASAP.
The electric bills also snowballed because of late fees, and the unwillingness to defer payment of past due balances over a period of time of more than 4 months in addition to the current bill. The other utility we have, that provides natural gas, WE Energies, is far more generous with past due balances and is willing to spread them out over 12 months, not 4 months. And I am disgusted with the fact that Alliant is able to contribute
thousands of dollars to right wing ALEC politicians in Wisconsin, including Scott Walker, collect massive increases in profit, and pay their CEO north of $5 million dollars, and memberships in ALEC, and a coliseum in Madison, yet not cut me a few days slack on a few hundred dollars. It is doubly sickening that this company has a monopoly on what it provides and I can't take my business elsewhere, other than generating my own juice, which is very cost prohibitive...
At this point I don’t know what to do. I have paid all I can pay at this point, $760 towards the bill. All relatives who would have been in a position to help me are deceased (my mother in October 2008 while I canvassed for Barack Obama), and my mother in law in April 2011. My wife is an only child, as am I, and is unemployed, getting about $900 a month on unemployment, which is to run out at the end of August. She is having trouble finding work. I can’t get other filler work either, outside of my area of expertise, despite the fact I am very healthy for now. It’s the old saw, you are “overqualified”. So no minimum wage or slightly above hack retail jobs or entry level assembly for me, despite the fact I have applied to many in my area. It doesn’t make sense going beyond the 20 mile range for crap wages, so I haven’t tried that. My father in law lives with us, and is on SSI., and will never work again, paying nominal rent to cover utilities and other expenses. I don't have friends of means that I would be too embarrassed to ask for money, and I live in a very right wing part of Wisconsin where people outside of the typical social service agencies have little sympathy for those who have fallen on hard times. Most of my friends are far away and the local ones are just as hard up as we are or almost there. I have fallen so far behind now, I don't know how I'm going to get back up, but there is a bit of hope, my contractor employer has a bunch of work that will start soon, but too late for the acute needs of right now. The utility has almost all our money now, and the small amount of food in the freezer will be thawed by tomorrow (luckily we held off on the big food stamp trip to Woodman's grocery store; it would have been disastrous if all of that had spoiled. There is no way to cook what we do have, without power, except for the grill and the fire pit in the back. I am scared, mainly for my family who has more trouble coping. My wife
UPDATE: I contacted Alliant Energy to confirm and document the payments. If I come up with the rest even early in the day tomorrow, the earliest they can turn on the power is Monday. This Friday afternoon disconnection was a cold shot...
My paypal address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Kosmail me if you want to help in some other way.
Any help would be appreciated. Anything within 300 miles of home, I would want to work it off by doing sustainable landscaping and/or ecological consulting (read my diaries on landscaping). Also, if anybody has any job or project leads or even better, something for me to do this winter for a job, that would be a lifesaver. Desperation has driven me to this point. Thank you
Thank you for reading...I'm sure others have encountered this situation. If and when I get back on my feet, I will pay it forward...
"When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you"... Nietsche
Post script...I have to leave the Mcdonalds soon, but I will be able to communicate and respond to comments on my phone. That bill is due soon also; however that device is a life saver for my work. I have the cheapest, oldest plan and phone I can consistent with my data usage, and desire to avoid ATT and Verizon...