The High Cost of Being Poor
'I'm just drowning here.'
This piece by journalist Eoin Higgins was originally co-published by The Flashpoint. The Flashpoint, like Discourse Blog, is part of the Discontents media collective. Subscribe now and get a 20% discount.
by Eoin Higgins
Joe Dumont is broke. After being out of work for nearly two years and having exhausted his savings, the 32-year-old Lincoln Park, Michigan man is struggling to survive as bills and debts keep piling up.
“My car broke down back in the summer and I couldn't afford the repairs, so it's sitting in the garage,” Dumont told me. “I walked four miles to a Gamestop when it was about 10 degrees out a few days ago to try and sell a Playstation so I could keep my lights turned on.”
The store told him that the condition of the unit meant they’d have to take $45 off the price, and another $40 off for him wanting cash. The discounted payout left Dumont without enough money to even cover the shut off notice for his power.
Dumont’s out of work and in debt, with no relief in sight. His lack of transportation—he has a car, but it needs repairs he can’t pay for—plus no phone make getting a job difficult. He’s on food stamps, so he can eat. But utility bills are piling up.
I talked to Dumont over the last few weeks about how he’s been economically immobilized by debt and circumstance. He’s living on the edge, and his story isn’t unique.
“I wasn’t even able to buy her a grave marker”
Dumont was the caretaker for his mother, Kathy, during the pandemic until her sudden death at 58 of heart failure in April 2021. Kathy was on disability after a heart attack in 2011 and five subsequent bypasses. Before that, she’d always worked two jobs, at a local window company and waitressing.
When she died, the doctors said the cause wasn’t Covid. Dumont’s not so sure. He thinks it was related—but either way, the hospital not listing her death as Covid-related had an immediate effect.
“It's kind of funny, I've heard so many people make bogus claims that ‘they're counting every death as Covid so the hospitals can make more money’ but I can assure you they aren't,” Dumont said. “I know this because after she passed, I received her death certificate and it was listed as natural causes, and I was unable to get help with the FEMA funeral cost reimbursements.”
Without the FEMA reimbursement, Dumont was left holding the bag for the funeral.
“I wasn’t even able to buy her a grave marker, they’re like an extra $1,500,” he told me.
“I just don't have the money for it”
After his mother’s death, Dumont found out that the house was nearly $10,000 behind on the mortgage. A leak had put the water bill at around $1,800 past due. His savings depleted—he had put most of it into clearing a large chunk of his mother’s debt in the early days of the pandemic—Dumont was reliant on unemployment to pay his bare minimum monthly bills. Unemployment ran out last September.
Kathy died so suddenly that there just wasn’t time to manage her affairs. There’s money in her bank account, but Dumont hasn’t been named the executor of her estate. Getting that certified requires hiring a lawyer and dealing with probate court.
“From what I looked up online about it in my county the costs are going to start at around $300 for the county fees on top of whatever a lawyer is going to cost me,” Dumont said. “I just don't have the money for it.”
A delay, not a reprieve
It’s not that Dumont hasn’t been trying to get a job. But without a phone or reliable transportation, that’s difficult. Dumont’s also a high school dropout, another hurdle to getting a job (one I can personally attest to). He’s turned to donating plasma for money, but was deferred because of a resting blood pressure of 160 over 110 and a pulse of 114.
“I’m just on edge all the time it feels like,” Dumont told me. “I haven't been to the doctor or anything to see if there’s a medical issue, I generally feel okay but I don't know.”
Dumont was approved for state aid to help with his circumstances. It was a relief, he told me, but it’s only a delay—not a reprieve.
“They're going to pay $350 on the water bill only if I pay the other $1,500 by Feb 16th,” he said. “If I needed help with $350 of it I'm not sure how they think I can come up with $1,500.”
The power and heat won’t get shut off, but the remaining balance—which will be over $200—is due the 16th as well.
Perpetual bust out
It’s easy to see how things escalate. Dumont could get a job if he had a phone. He could go get a phone (if he had the money) if he could drive his car. He could afford the repairs for his car with a job applied for online, if he had internet. He could pay his internet bill if he wasn’t in danger of losing power. He could pay the power bill if he wasn’t worried about the heat bill. He wouldn’t be worried about the heat bill if he wasn’t worried about the foreclosure on the house, which in turn he could manage if he could afford to navigate probate court.
Dumont’s circumstances are a perfect example of how difficult it is being poor in America. It’s almost impossible to ever get ahead as every bill stacks on top of every debt, keeping you scrambling for any possible income to keep your lights and heat on and stay fed. Life for the working poor in the US is a perpetual bust out, indebted to invisible gangsters who outsource the dirty work of stripping down your life for parts until you have nothing left to give.
“I’m just drowning here,” Dumont told me.