25 November, 2019

How Do the Joneses Keep Up?

by Dana Krull

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Fall 2019 newsletter of the Holy Family Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry, a ministry of Holy Family Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio.

Meet Joe and Jane Jones. They’re median folks living in Central Ohio, both 39 years old with a gross annual household income of $56,319.*** The Joneses have two kids, Joe Jr. (age 14) and Janelle (age 11), plus another one on the way, which was unexpected. Joe works 40 hours per week as a fast food manager on a varied shift rotation and Jane works 40 hours on a night shift at a local warehouse. They have very good health insurance coverage through Joe’s job but the deductibles and out-of-pocket limits are still high for them, and they’re worried about how to make ends meet if Jane ends up bedridden again during this pregnancy. Regardless, they’re going to have to figure out what they will do after Jane delivers the baby because neither of them will qualify for post-natal leave and they won’t have enough for childcare. The Joneses rent a small apartment in a suburb with a good school system; they simply haven’t been able to save enough for a down payment to buy a house. Even though their credit score has steadily improved throughout their thirties as they slowly paid off their vehicles, they have always seemed to find themselves burning through their meager savings each year whenever there is a medical emergency, car breakdown, braces for the kids, or any other unexpected expense. The Central Ohio housing market bubble hasn’t helped them, either; they’re frustrated because for what they spend in rent every month, they could be building equity. For now, they’re thankful that they’ve been able to keep their heads above water and are somehow still able to provide a few extras for their kids: Joe Jr. is active in sports year-round and Janelle has started on a cheerleading team.

Joe and Jane make too much money to qualify for food stamps, so Jane has suggested they use local food pantries once the baby is born, but Joe is too proud to ask for help. He always remembers his father shaking his head and muttering about “all those lazy freeloaders who expect someone else to feed them” when Joe was growing up. Even when Jane has offered to go to a nearby pantry one morning after she gets off work so that Joe doesn’t have to feel ashamed, he has refused and insisted that they’ll just have to continue finding ways to keep up on their current income. But he also can’t bear the thought of telling their kids that they can’t play sports because that’s what kept him going during his own teen years, so now that Jane is pregnant, Joe’s tone has started to soften. He and Jane are weighing their options: Joe can try to find a second job to pay for extras (which will decrease their already meager family time together), they can move to a cheaper area (which would uproot the kids and likely put them in a failing school), take out a short-term loan (which they know is risky), or worst case ask their parents for money (which would not help family dynamics).

Let’s take a look at the Jones Family budget to see how they’re currently keeping up. Assuming they clear 85% of their paychecks after withholdings, they net $47,865 per year or $3,988 per month.

Note that the Joneses have zero car debt, they avoid eating out, they have a pretty generous 80/20 plan from Joe’s employer, they’re intentional enough to save money every month for emergencies, they use a per-GB cell phone plan and basic internet service, they don’t have cable, and they generally strive to live within their means. But even in this best-case scenario, their medical max out of pocket limit far exceeds any wiggle room they have and they always have to fight against the peer pressure their kids experience in their higher-income school district. Every year they pray for large tax returns so that they can pay down their credit card debt for any extra expenses.

Sure, it’s easy to make up a family with variables that fit the desired narrative to make a point, but consider that this fictional scenario only has one large financial family pressure woven into the story: Jane’s unexpected high-risk pregnancy. What if Joe also gets in a car accident, or one of the kids breaks a bone? What if Jane’s hours are reduced at the warehouse because the economy hits a snag? What if any number of other possible problems are added onto this middle-income family who is struggling not to fall back into the financial hole they’ve spent their thirties fighting their way out of while keeping their kids out of a failing school district? Now, imagine the Joneses are living below median income, they’re divorced and sharing the kids between two homes: maybe they never made it to the apartment in the suburbs to begin with. Even further, what if they don’t have the training, skills or knowledge for where to even begin trying to escape from the swirling vortex of short-term, high-interest debt?

There are 130 food pantries in Franklin County which serve even middle-income households like the Joneses, not just families living at or below the poverty line. Your gifts make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people who aren’t too ashamed to ask for a little help. Donations to non-profits like HFSK, Mid Ohio Foodbank, and so many others will help the many thousands of “Joneses” in Franklin County to keep up with the rising costs of life.

***Financial and demographic figures used for this hypothetical couple’s story were collected online at census.gov, ohio.gov and apartments.com. 

Title photo credit: istock.com

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