02/14/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Down and Out in the Margins of the American Economy

My financial tumble began before the Great Recession. But the collapse of the American economy in 2008 seemed like the nail in the coffin.

In 2003, I left an editor's position at a small, area newspaper, unaware that that print journalism was a dying trade. The story of that sudden departure is too tedious in the telling. It will suffice to say my exit involved office politics and a managing editor who belonged in a straight-jacket.

At first I had no worries. I had a paid mortgage, a fair amount of savings, and I'd recently won a "Best Feature Story" award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

I considered myself a rather crusty, unsentimental soul. A skeptic at heart. But I was optimistic about finding a job.

I had underestimated what the digital revolution would decimate the newspaper trade.

The years immediately following my exit were like a slow-motion train wreck. My wife divorced me. With no bites on my newspaper inquiries, I took clerical employment with a few temp agencies near my home in west Wisconsin. But the clerical work soon ran out, so I took temp work in factories and warehouses, a series of physical and emotional ordeals I plan to write a book about someday. I tried to maintain my writing chops by freelancing for some newspapers and magazines. But the cash I made from freelancing was never sufficient.

I continued to apply to newspapers. But the heap of rejection letters -- along with my discovery of the kinds of candidates those outfits hired -- made it clear that turning "The Big 50" had made me a leper among applicants. Employers favor youth; they're trendy, tech savvy, and work for little or sometimes no wages.

When my savings depleted, I applied to various banks for a mortgage on my house. The only bank to respond with an offer was a large corporate bank. However, the fine print indicated the interest I'd pay was three times the worth of my house. There used to be laws against that kind of lending. But deregulation allowed the larger banks to essentially become mobster-level loan sharks. I thank God I had enough sense to see no charm in that offer, and refuse it.

My ordeal stretched into years of near constant financial emergencies. There were weeks spent driving without car insurance (terrible to admit; but one must work), utility shutoffs, standing in line at food shelves, and the dignity destroying debacles that involve social-service agencies -- food stamps, medical assistance, etc. I took anti-depressants.

I was among the lucky. I had the good fortune to receive the assistance from friends and family. An old high school friend who had heard of my situation contacted me, and sent checks. I plan to nominate her for sainthood. Without her tender mercies I doubt I would have survived.

Following a month spent laboring at a warehouse, atop a two story ladder, wrestling wooden pallets onto a fork lift driven by the owner's 20-year-old son, my shoulder, which had degenerated through years of abuse following a botched operation, began to swell and transmit unendurable pain. When I asked my temp agency to find me to a lighter assignment, they dropped me like a plague infested rat.

Following a dismal assessment from a shoulder surgeon, I applied for Social Security Disability. It was nearly a year before I was granted the status and began to receive checks. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however. Anyone who earns below a six figure income and believes you can survive on Social Security Disability ought to never play the horses.

Brighter days followed when I met a lovely woman. Her recent divorce -- her ex had signed up for one of those predatory mortgages -- had left her without resources. She moved in with me and began working as a cashier in a supermarket. By this time, the unpaid property taxes had gathered interest. That year, a new assessment by assessment by the City of River Falls added another $1,000 in property taxes. We had no other recourse. We managed to somehow sell the house in 2010, despite the Great Recession. But we sold it at a loss, and the county lopped $25,000 off the top.

We moved to a tiny house in a working class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. My sweetheart transferred to a nearby supermarket, and we married that spring.

What followed that autumn seems like a plot lifted from a Raymond Carver story. My wife developed an ear infection that metastasized into meningitis. The ER doctors told me she had little chance of survival. My wife is a survivor. But the ravages of the disease necessitated the amputation of her legs and left one hand in paralysis.

Ann's application for Social Security Disability was denied, because she hadn't worked the 10 years needed to qualify. The State of Minnesota, via SSDI (I know, don't ask), grants her $350 a month. Had we not married she could receive $800. A county social worker suggested we divorce. Another social worker, after I had complained of my wife's "award," suggested she get a job "wearing a headset."

We remain unbowed. We take our motto from Scotty's message to Captain Kirk: "We've sustained damage, but we can still maneuver!" We remain upbeat by grasping at any possible straw that offers help. And we damn well know the pointlessness of self-pity. Through these recent ordeals we have grown jaundiced about our government and both political parties. Our Congress, with little exception, is solely representative of corporate interests, not people like us.

Despite everything, my wife and I survive. But we do so, without illusions, without hope or fear.


Bill's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.

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