The Lower Middle Class Crunch: Too Rich To Qualify For Government Assistance

06/29/2010 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Maria Angulo and her husband Jésus are caught somewhere between the "haves" and the "have nots." Their combined household income of $45,000 a year places them just above the low-income status they would need to qualify for most government assistance programs -- but they can't afford daycare for their two young children, health insurance, or autism testing and treatment for their struggling 4-year-old son.

Angulo, 29, vented her frustrations in a June 24 letter to the Yuma Sun:

"I am writing this letter because I'd rather vent than cry.

I cannot get medical help for my child and I am frustrated and powerless. My husband and I work and pay taxes, we are U.S. citizens and we are good people.

My son is special; he moves differently, he talks differently, he expresses himself differently.... a mother knows when something is wrong and I just know and feel it.

The only problem is we don't have medical insurance so we can't get a diagnosis and we can't get treatment. I do not qualify for low-income help and my employer offers insurance that almost equals the amount of a paycheck.

I've called to get quotes on how much it would cost if I paid out of pocket and it is around $1,000. I am not low income but I simply cannot afford that.... Where does that leave a regular hard-working middle- class family? Where does that leave my son?"

The Angulos live in San Luis, Arizona, about a mile from the Mexican border. Maria is a bookstore manager for the local school district, and Jésus works at the customs department, but neither of them receives affordable healthcare through work. Maria says she would have to pay $500 a month out of pocket for a family health insurance plan, while many of her low-income friends receive health care for free.

"It's backwards," she said. "Some of my family members and friends in Mexico, they have a passport to come and go. They come over here and qualify for free health insurance, then they get treatment, don't pay the bill, and go back. We pay taxes and work here, but we don't have any coverage at all. If anyone in my family is sick, we have to go to Mexico to get treatment because we can't afford it here. It's scary, because it's not the same quality healthcare there. If my kids needed a major surgery or something, I don't know what I would do."

Childcare is also a huge problem for the Angulos. According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, a family must make a combined income of $36,000 or less to qualify for childcare assistance. But tuition for local preschools costs up to $120 per child per week, which the Angulos can't afford. So they pay a babysitter from Mexico to come over take care of their kids, ages 3 and 4, during the workweek.

"The cutoff for childcare assistance is outrageously low," Angulo said. "Some people I know go through migrant programs, where if the parents work in the field they get free childcare. But my kids can't get into those schools because I don't work in a field. We have to find a cheap babysitter in Mexico who can watch them. And it's definitely not the same -- her only job is to keep them alive. She doesn't teach my kids anything like they would learn in a school."

The lack of financial assistance for lower-middle-class families in Arizona is symptomatic of a major fiscal crisis in state government, according to a recent study by the New America Foundation. As the ranks of the unemployed have swelled over the past few years, so has state spending on programs such as Medicaid and unemployment assistance. State governors are now having to make major budget cuts that hit lower-middle-class families the hardest: restricting eligibility for health insurance, cutting aid to K-12 schools and reducing assistance to public colleges and universities.

As eligibility cutoffs for assistance programs are pushed lower and lower, struggling families like the Angulos are being squeezed out.

"I want to tell the government, 'Please don't forget the middle class!' There are people who do pay their taxes, who are U.S. citizens, who need help," Angula said. "We are not 100% under the poverty line. But trust me: if we had the money for childcare and healthcare, we wouldn't be asking for it."

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