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Bloggish: Kobayashi Maru

Sometimes the only choice you get is in how you end up losing.

There are few things in life that I derive joy from, largely because there’s so precious little that I do, besides work, anyway.

I’m not entirely sure when the last time was that I went outside town. I think it’s been at least a year. It was just a trip to the next town over for work. I never even got out of the vehicle. I was bringing a coworker to pick up a customer’s vehicle from an alignment shop.

Before then? Well, it gets even less clear. I think it might have been two to three years previous. That was also the last time I was in a Walmart, interestingly. This crazy old bat caused a scene. Long story, but it pretty much extinguished the last ember of interest I had in being out in public.

Well, there’s still in town, right? I’ve only really gone between work, the grocery store, and home. That’s been the extent of my travels for the last four years or so. I’ve recently been going to the dentist, too, so… progress?

What’s the point of mentioning all this, you might ask? Well, a lot of this is a symptom of the poverty my family lives in. My children and, by extension, my wife have managed to lead far more adventurous lives thanks to school activities and a gracious grandmother, thank goodness.

Not me, though.

I’ve been trying to dig us out of this pit for a long time, well over a decade. I started making progress at my production job. I was paying down my debt, my income was finally over $10 an hour, and there were rumors flying that we might finally get bonuses.

Then we got bought out by a European company. Then they closed our production site. Eight years of building my career, all for naught. All that progress put into the cross-hairs of fate.

This is a small town, so there weren’t a lot of other options. There was factory work, but nothing but horror stories came out of that place. Incredibly long hours, bathroom breaks only when your machine breaks, that kind of thing.

The other option was retail. We had part-time jobs at a grocery store or full-time jobs at a Dollar General. The nearest, well, anything else was nearly half an hour out of town, and guess who didn’t have a car?

I went to work for Dollar General for two dollars an hour less than I was making at the production job. I was a key-holder, essentially one step below assistant manager. It didn’t last long.

Anybody who has ever worked at a dollar store will understand why. You never do well enough. You are always understaffed, and even more underappreciated. I quickly decided to make it a stepping stone.

It carried me into my current job of five years, as an auto detailer. I made my way up to $10 an hour over the next three years. Not bad, but still not what I was making at that production job four years prior.

Jump to today. It had been about six years since I worked at the production facility. All the progress I made paying off my bills had been nullified a long time ago. In fact, I owed more than twice what I did way back then, for want of funds.

I supplemented my income with my yearly tax return. That stopped working at the end of last year. I now have two companies that are banging on my proverbial door. I can’t pay them anymore.

I had a huge argument with my boss at work. It had been two years since I received a raise. I just reached a point of not caring, anymore. Somehow I came out of it not only still employed, but with a dollar raise.

For the first time I’m not only back to making what I was at the production job, but I’m a little ahead. For now, anyways. You see, even public assistance is apparently against me.

One of the things that’s stifled my battle against my debt is public assistance. They are supposed to help, but they also hurt, thanks to the way they are set up. Here’s what happens when I get a raise:

I get a raise(yay!) Then a month or three later, I have to inform the food assistance people and the housing authority (we live in public housing) of that raise. The food assistance people will reduce our food stamps, because I’m making more and should pay more of the grocery bill. The housing authority will raise our rent because I’m making more and should pay more for rent. Neither program considers debts owed in their calculations.

The net effect of this is half of my raise disappearing in a puff of smoke. The net $170 extra I get each month will probably shrink to $90 or less by mid-year thanks to these adjustments. This obviously makes it much harder to pay off that debt that neither program recognizes. So even this victory is minor and, partly, temporary.

I’m still hoping to have found a tipping point. The bills I’m not paying anymore should give me enough leeway, with the help of that tax return, to finally tip the scales back in the other direction. That’s not the end of my problems, though.

At least one of those companies is almost certain to take me to court over that debt, as it is not a trivial amount. I still won’t be able to pay it, but they will try to garnish my wages and raid my bank account. That’s going to make it more difficult to pay the bills. Sound familiar?

They could garnish up to $800 a year, and if I put more than $1,000 in my bank account at any given time, it could be claimed by the plaintiff. I might be able to claim a hardship, but it’s a toss-up if the judge would buy it. Regardless, it could tip the scales against me once again.

During all this, I have two cars. One is my wife’s, one is mine. Mine is now twenty-two years old, and has over 205,000 miles on it. I could not pay to repair or replace it if something expensive broke on it. I actually plan on riding my bike whenever I can now to reduce the wear on it. It could be years before I can replace it.

My wife’s car is fifteen years old now. It’s in much better shape than mine, but the same replacement issues exist. There’s no good answer.

What about bankruptcy, you might ask? If I file for bankruptcy, I can only protect one vehicle. That means there’s a chance they will take mine. It being so old and valueless is ironically my possible saving grace.

BUT…

If I claim bankruptcy, I can’t try to get an FHA loan for two years. During those two years, my daughter will turn eighteen(this year,) possibly get a job, and possibly go to college. All three events will potentially affect our food assistance, housing, and future tax returns.

My tax return will be lower, for example, because I will only have one child for the child tax credit. Our food assistance could drop because any income my daughter makes would be counted against us. If she were to move out, we’d be forced to move into a smaller place because we would no longer “need” her bedroom.

Our best bet right now seems to just keep on keeping on. I need to hope that, somehow, my credit score will increase enough, and my debt load will decrease enough, to be eligible for a FHA home loan before we’re forced from our current home. That will be made ever-more challenging as my tax return and benefits shrink, and my daughter tries to transition to adulthood.

Tl;dr: Kobayashi Maru

-John