published Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Kennedy: Down but not out in St. Elmo

How fragile is the American middle class?

Extremely.

Just consider Rich and Kelly, an engaged couple living together in St. Elmo. A year ago, they were on the road to homeownership. Rich, 30, a former supermarket worker, had started his own home remodeling business. Kelly, 35, was a manager at a convenience store. Things were clicking.

Wealthy? No way. But they could at least pay their bills.

Last year their combined pay was about $50,000, a bit above Chattanooga's median household income of about $43,000.

But things have changed since then. Rich isn't able to work as much now because he is needed for baby-sitting duty. Kelly changed jobs and now works double shifts as a waitress at a local steakhouse. They've taken out payday loans to help smooth out their cash-flow problems, but the loans are like quicksand.

"It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul," Kelly explains.

Friends knew something was wrong when they saw that Rich was trying to sell some of his construction tools on Craigslist. One friend even secretly started a donation drive for them on a crowdfunding website called GoFundMe.com. She worried that Kelly and Rich would find out, though, and demand she take down the appeal.

What changed in a year?

Life changed. Just a little. Just enough to throw things out of balance, like a car tire with a slow leak.

Last winter, Rich and Kelly were given legal custody of Rich's two nieces, ages 3 and 2. It's a complicated family situation, but both believe they did the right thing.

"At the end of the day, the girls are safe and happy; we love the heck out of them," Rich explains.

The household also includes Kelly's 12-year-old daughter. It's a joyous group. On any given day the girls beg for music and the whole house erupts into a dance party.

Financially, though, the family went from supporting three people on two incomes to supporting five people on one-and-a-half incomes. The little girls needed clothes, new shoes, diapers, nutritious meals.

Most days, Rich takes care of the kids while Kelly works. At least her paycheck is steady. Child care -- which would be more than $100 a week per child-- is too expensive. They have no health insurance. Rich takes on construction jobs when he can, but nobody wants a carpenter working on their house in the middle of the night.

I met with Rich and Kelly one day last week at a public playground in St. Elmo. Rich, who is from Connecticut, wore a New England Patriots football jersey. Kelly, who is from Ohio, smiles a lot; but she also looks tired as she rakes her hair out of her face. They asked that I not use their last names to protect their family's privacy.

Rich and Kelly are chin-up people. They don't dwell on their problems.

"We've always been the strong ones that other people come to for help," Kelly says.

Most of their friends don't know anything is wrong, but Rich and Kelly just can't seem to get over the financial hump. Taking on two new mouths to feed was more difficult than they expected. Still, they are embarrassed about their money problems. They don't want to be seen as failures.

The difference between being $1,000 behind in their bills versus being $1,000 ahead is enormous. It's enough of a struggle they they're thinking about moving to Ohio, near Kelly's family, in hopes of catching their breaths financially.

As we talked, Rich and Kelly told me something that -- if you love Chattanooga -- will break your heart.

"We don't want to leave," says Rich. "Living down here has made us better people."

"This feels like home to me," says Kelly. "This is the place we want to raise the kids."

Almost from the moment they arrived here three years ago, they say, they sensed that Chattanoogans cared about one another. Rich advertised online to pay someone to put brakes on his car, and a guy arrived one day to do it free. When they moved to St. Elmo their new neighbors showed up to help unpack their belongings.

Even now, several days after we talked, I can't forget Rich's words: "... Living down here has made us better people."

If a more humble compliment has ever been paid to our city, I'd like to hear it.

Incidentally, I discovered the secret donation webpage is still active at www.gofundme.com/RichandKelly.

... Just saying.

To suggest a human interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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