Des Moines Register, February 9, 2008: Iowa’s working poor stuck in the middle

Posted on



Claudia Goldstone scrunches over the kitchen table in her Ames apartment. Before her sits a pile of bills, many of them medical bills for her 15-year-old autistic and mentally retarded daughter, Jacinda.

Goldstone lists the financial shortcuts she takes to ensure that her working-poor family holds its precarious financial position:

She cuts her own hair. She visits the food pantry monthly for 26 pounds of groceries for her family of four. And she picks up college kids’ beer cans and work colleagues’ pop cans because “those 5 cents adds up,” Goldstone says, then she laughs her big laugh – one tinged with worry.

Sounds like a family living at the poverty line, right?

Not quite. Goldstone, 49, and her husband work full time and make a combined $50,000 a year. That’s more than double the 2008 federal poverty guideline for a household of four people: $21,200.

“I’m not trailer trash, as you see, but we’re not really making it either,” Goldstone said recently. “When you’re middle class or working poor, you’re between two worlds, and we’re getting smooshed.”

In this presidential election year, many candidates have brought the lower classes to the center of the national dialogue, especially among Democrats. Before he dropped out of the race for the White House, Democrat John Edwards spoke of “two Americas,” one making it and one not. He called poverty “the great moral issue of our century.” Republican Mike Huckabee calls fighting poverty and stabilizing families a “faith position,” not a political one. He says fighting poverty is consistent with what he calls his party’s pro-life politics. Democrat Barack Obama refers to this country’s “empathy deficit” and encourages the government to help society’s have-nots.

But the quieter issues of the lower middle class – people who, like Goldstone, aren’t below the poverty line but still live on the edge of severe economic struggles – have crept into the debate, too. Democrat Hillary Clinton has accused the Bush administration of turning the middle class into “invisible Americans,” and Obama has unveiled a plan to cut the tax burden on middle-class Americans. Several candidates have focused on the health care and economic inequality issues that affect those living on the edge – people well above the poverty line and therefore ineligible for government benefits.

“Most people agree the current measure of poverty is clearly a conservative measure,” said Cindy Fletcher, professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

And throw in unique family needs, like Goldstone’s expenses with Jacinda, and the poverty formula is thrown into flux.

“If you have a special-needs situation, that whole dollar amount changes as far as what it takes for a family to get by,” said JaneAnn Stout, associate dean of the College of Human Sciences at ISU and director of the university’s Extension to Families program.

Goldstone’s family bests the common indicators of poverty. They have health insurance, though Jacinda’s co-payments add up, and the family has food on the table. “But because of the burdens I have with a special-needs child, it has taken more money out of our lives to survive,” Goldstone said.

So the family gets by on a Spartan lifestyle, the only extravagance being the occasional restaurant pizza for the kids.

Here’s Goldstone’s irony: She works in the Alzheimer’s unit at Northcrest Retirement Community. Goldstone feels devoted to making a difference in residents’ lives, no matter how their disease and their society has left them behind.

Yet Goldstone, with her daughter’s issues, feels left behind by that same society.

Jacinda is a freshman at Ames High School. She has doctor’s appointments twice a month in Des Moines, and she visits a psychiatrist regularly – lots of gas money. She’s frequently hospitalized with delusions or aggressive behavior. Her medications, more than a half dozen including a digestive enzyme, a mood stabilizer and an anti-agressor, come with $30 co-pays after Goldstone’s husband got a job and Medicaid dropped the family because they made too much to qualify.

And there are the unexpected costs. Like when Jacinda threw all her socks away, forcing the family to buy new socks. Or when they spent $70 for a potty chair.

“Every time I turn around, there’s some kind of expense,” Goldstone said.

The bills pile up on her kitchen table. Rent: $799 a month. Utilities: $115.46. Health insurance: $300. Dental insurance: $95. School bus transit: $25.25. Car payment for her husband’s 1997 Volvo: more than $300 a month, since his bad credit meant he couldn’t get a good loan.

They don’t qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, so $168 a month goes to school lunches.

And then there was the $10,000 bill for Jacinda’s recent seven-day stay in the hospital, an all-too-common occurrence given her daughter’s frequent, violent tantrums. Insurance paid $8,000 of it, but Goldstone’s still battling for the remaining $2,000.

The financial issues would be mitigated if Jacinda were to live in an institution, where the state could pick up much of her tab.

But Goldstone doesn’t want Jacinda in an institutional life. Her daughter belongs at home, around people who love her, Goldstone said.

In many ways, Jacinda is a normal teen. She loves to dance, swim, draw, watch the Disney Channel.

In many ways, she’s far from normal. She sometimes balls up sheets of paper and chews them. She says things like, “God put a baby in my stomach.”

“She wants to be a teenager like every teenager,” Goldstone said. “But she’s not. And that’s the most frustrating thing for her.”

So Jacinda stays at home, and Goldstone cuts corners to make do – barely.

Goldstone shops at Goodwill and Dollar General. She makes a lot of rice dishes because rice fills up stomachs, and because she knows where to get two-for-the-price-of-one 10-pound bags of the grain.

That last thing she wants is getting into debt again. A few years ago, Goldstone went through bankruptcy court after falling $30,000 in debt, $10,000 of that on credit cards to cover Jacinda’s medical bills.

So now, she sits at her kitchen table, flipping through bills, wearing a pink T-shirt that reads, “Pray about everything, worry about nothing.” When Goldstone talks of finances, she employs her big laugh, almost like a shrug of the shoulders.

“I guess laughing is a defense mechanism,” she said. “I don’t have time to cry. I’m not one to give up. I got fight.”

Reporter Reid Forgrave can be reached at (515) 284-8260 or

« Back to News