Suffolk County, Long Island
Billy Silver woke up five minutes before his alarm was set to go off. Popping the alarm button in, he smiled. One day he’ll need to check if the alarm actually works. Not one for taking things for granted, he thought back on his situation.
The sun is shining, peeking through the leaves of the oak trees someone ambitiously planted so many years ago. After fifteen years working for Mr. Valenza’s grocery store, Billy Is now the manager, making a pretty decent living. With three years in the position under his belt, Billy has learned to trust his own decisions and plan for the future needs of the store.
Monica has been with the Red Cross for ten years. She is now the coordinator for the whole East Coast, and she loves the work. Even though she is expecting their third child – finally a girl! – she intends to work pretty near her due date. She does plan on taking off six weeks after the baby is born, but fortunately her maternity leave is paid, so there will be no break in income.
The two boys are in school full time, and Monica’s job allows her to keep “mommy hours”; they of course still have all the baby furniture and accoutrements for the awaited Marylou. The Red Cross offices have a great day care right there that’s a very reasonable cost, since it’s subsidized by the agency.
Billy even started a college fund savings account. Not sure if there will be much in it by the time his eldest, Will, comes of age; or that the kid will be interested in going to college. But just in case, it’s there. And if not, it’s savings. Will’s younger brother JayJay shows no outstanding academic strengths, but it’s awfully early to tell. Hopefully Marylou will meet some nice husband material at school.
That’s one of the reasons they purchased a house in this neighborhood – nice people, good schools, decent values. And the mortgage is already one-third paid off.
Add the silly dog and loony cat, two late-model cars and a bike for each kid, who could ask for more? “God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world.”
After his shower, Billy went to the kitchen and made a cup of instant coffee. As with her other pregnancies, Monica was a little slower to start her day and preferred tea in the morning. That’s okay; there’s fresh brewed coffee at work and of course those warm bagels. Mrs. Valenza still gets up before dawn and bakes every day of the week.
Coffee in hand, Billy went to roust the boys while Monica was in the shower. There’s a lot of comfort in routine, he noted, and the whole family seemed to fall into the pattern easily.
One afternoon Billy got a call at work from his mother. Dad had passed away about five years earlier from cancer – the doctors blamed it on cigarettes. But Dad had left Mom with a decent pension, good medical coverage, and a paid-off house. She too had fit into that “comfort zone”. But this call was alarming. The issuers of the pension sent her a notification that they were cutting back on her medical coverage. Being in her sixties, this was of course her major expense. She was now going to be responsible for a co-pay for every doctor’s visit, every prescription, and even a premium every month. They would cover just about all the same things, but she had reached the age of sixty-five and now had to depend on Medicare for part of her coverage, and that meant further reductions of her social security check to pay for that insurance. It was all very confusing to her and she wanted Billy to go over her options with her. His mother had definitely switched into panic mode over this.
Billy took an afternoon off and worked on the options for his mother. This meant a lot of time on the phone with insurance companies spewing out incomprehensible options like advantage versus supplemental, and parts B and C of Medicare. All this on the speakerphone so his mother could get equally confused. They finally took what seemed like the best path, more from exhaustion than conviction, and tried to then figure out how much money his mother would need to put aside for medical bills each month.
Needless to say, they hadn’t actually anticipated all the expenses that had hitherto been transparent. Mom had to cut back on all the doctor-demanded trips for tests and specialists both because of the co-pays involved and the gas needed to drive there. No longer could she afford to obediently do everything the doctor wanted. She learned to ask the price of a test before agreeing to go to it. She gave up on preventative tests – mammogram, Pap smear, colonoscopy, blood tests. She would just have to hope that they wouldn’t have found anything anyway. She would let her prescriptions run out, then wait a month before refilling them. She took advantage of every drug store special – antibiotics for four dollars, free flu shots, over-the-counter pills if they were cheaper than prescriptions. She even ordered some prescriptions from Canada over the Internet, hoping that the quality was just as good. Although she was in relatively good health, she found herself spending more time managing that health than any other occupation.
Two weeks before Marylou was slated to enter this world, Monica went on her maternity leave. A week later they broke the news to her that they no longer pay salaries during a maternity leave; she could apply for short-term disability. So now they were not only facing $9,000 for the birth, but a loss of over $400 a week in income. So much for the college fund.
About a year later, Mr. Valenza called Billy into his office. The grocery store he had established forty years ago was facing hard times. Local farmers and ranchers could no longer sell directly to the store, due to new regulations, and the cost of stocking the shelves had risen sharply. Mr. Valenza had raised his prices as far as the market could bear, but the profit margin was still shrinking. It was time to cut back on some overhead. He had cut the staff by 20% already; Mrs. Valenza was baking on regular store-open hours to cut back on heat and electricity bills; they discontinued home delivery service for the old and infirm. Now Billy had to accept a cutback of some sort. Mr. Valenza was going to purchase a cheaper medical package for him, his wife and Billy. And Billy would have to take a cut in pay. Billy was salary-exempt, so he would still need to work six days a week; his assistant manager had been laid off two months earlier.
A year after Billy’s cutback, The Red Cross announced that they were closing the doors of most of their offices. Federal funds had dried up and contributions had shrunk to a trickle. Monica was out of a job. She got six months of unemployment pay, one-third her salary, but by the time that was gone, she had still not found a new job. As with so many others, she was no longer on the unemployment rolls, so the general populace thought that unemployment had reached a plateau. As many people went off the rolls, an equal number had gone on.
Billy Silver found out that his alarm really does work, and he turned it off each morning with a scowl on his face. His family had gone from middle class to lower class and were rapidly approaching the label of poor. His mother got a job as a cashier in a Job Lots store. Because of her arthritis she could only work part-time at minimum wage.
Mrs. Silver also had to sell her home to pay mounting medical bills. She moved in with Billy, sharing the third bedroom with Marylou. Billy and Monica grew up in the post-World-War-II era of nuclear families, so they were unused to having more than two generations under one roof. Fortunately they all got along pretty well. The boys were approaching puberty, and with it all the angst, as well as the expenses, of adolescence were looming quickly. When Marylou reached school age, kindergarten was a full day, and Monica could accept a job without worrying about child care. Since she had only part-time work, Mrs. Silver could watch the kids after school and Monica could work regular hours. She got a job as a desk manager at a nearby hotel.
Things seemed to be stabilizing as they all adjusted to their new life style. It helped that the neighbors all seemed to be going through the same things, so it wasn’t as embarrassing as it could be. Yet in the newspaper, television news and radio broadcasts, they got the impression that this was a localized problem, not shared by the rest of the country. Billy no longer could rest on his laurels, and he braced for the possibility of more changes, perhaps moving to another state entirely.