Waiting to Be Paid


[What follows is an essay written in response to Michael D. Yates’ call for essays on work. — Ed.]

I have a number of jobs. I homeschool a special needs child, I work part-time in a cat shelter, and I work part-time in our family business, a solo CPA practice. My husband works about 100 hours a week in our business. He last had a day off eight years ago. We have not taken a vacation in over a decade.

Running a small business — in our case, a solo CPA practice — has meant being privy to the inner workings of the financial situations of a wide variety of people. Our tax clients come from a wide range of backgrounds and incomes, but most of our corporate clients own small businesses, like ours. A few of our clients are prospering. But most, like us, are struggling to stay solvent. And most, like us, are losing that struggle. The area I Iive in has been suffering an economic downturn for quite some time now; wages are stagnant, prices are skyrocketing, and people are suffering. We have lost good clients, long-surviving businesses, to bankruptcy and have had to replace them with much smaller accounts. We are fighting to remain in business ourselves, forever behind, and desperately trying to hang on to the framework of a “middle class” life.

I’ve often heard those on the right argue that being poor in America is better than being poor anywhere else. Well, you know what? Being poor — anywhere — hurts. It’s a visceral hurt that permeates every inch of your body, every hour of your day. So I’m not really interested in hearing poverty in the United States dismissed just because we don’t actually see poor people dead in the streets. Besides, even that dubious measuring stick is no longer “operative” since Hurricane Katrina.

We cannot pay our bills until we are paid by our clients. And not surprisingly, people do not eagerly wait by their mailboxes for their accountant’s bill to arrive. We get paid last, because unlike suppliers, and the utility companies, the banks and the government, we cannot inflict hurt on those who don’t pay us. Most people who don’t pay us are not being deliberately derelict. They are just like us — waiting to be paid by others.

Because we are self-employed, we do not qualify for group health insurance. Because I have a mild “pre-existing condition,” I have been “rated” by Blue Cross, and subsequently, all other health insurance carriers. Most turn me down. The one who will insure me is free to charge whatever they wish. And they wish to charge over $1000 a month. I can pay it or die — it’s apparently my choice. Freedom, I guess, comes in many forms in the United States.

Here’s what life is like when you are one of the “unexpectedly poor.” You finally go to the dentist when even major painkillers stop working to kill the ache in your teeth, and the dentist berates you, asking you why you didn’t come in earlier. You are ashamed to tell him why. Your garbage doesn’t get picked up for a month or so, because that is simply one bill that will have to wait. You turn down all invitations to go out to coffee or lunch. That is money that will have to go to gas, or to buy milk for the family.

The threat of an unexpected bill is overwhelming. If the cat is lethargic, I cry. I know that I should call the vet, but cannot imagine how to pay. If the car makes a noise, the roof leaks (and it does, in many, many places now), or the garage door track is bent and needs replaced, you try to ignore it. You drive slowly, put buckets under the leaks, and park the car in the driveway. Ignoring things takes a lot of emotional energy, because the ignored problems do not cooperatively leave your mind — they must be buried anew daily. And then, undead, they claw to the surface over and over again, louder and angrier — but still without solutions.

You try to ask for help without sounding desperate. You seek more part-time or temporary jobs, ask others to keep their eyes open for new clients and new opportunities, and spend a lot of time questioning yourself. You are working hard. You are playing by the rules. But you keep losing. Why?

You watch footage of refugees, those living in such poverty that they are literally starving, and tell yourself that you are relatively well off, and of course, when one uses that yardstick, you are. But — should having your teeth fixed truly be considered a luxury in the United States? How low should we accept that bar to be set?

Shame, anger, depression, despair. They are constant companions and bubble to the surface at unexpected times. Maybe it’s when the phones are cut off — again. Or when the village hangs the water shutoff notice on your door. Maybe it’s when the client who owes you $4000 calls — again — to tell you it will be another month before they can make a payment — and you can’t tell your bank to wait a month for the loan repayment money.

Despair surfaces when you find yourself not filling prescriptions that your doctor insists you need because you need electricity more. It’s turning off your answering machine when friends are over, so they won’t hear your creditors leaving angry messages. And living this way is a lot of work, takes a lot of time, and also carries with it the burden of a secret. The shame is often the very worst part. It’s a thousand humiliations and fears, weighing every car trip’s necessity because you can’t afford another gallon of gas. It’s putting $5 of gas in your car at a time, it’s wondering how long you can make a box of tissues or roll of toilet paper last.

It’s having multiple degrees and 20 years experience as a CPA and wondering if you should have just gone into government work instead of trying to run a small business. I don’t know how low things will go or how long we can tread this toxic water. We are actively seeking a way out, and have been for some time. But as anyone who has made that long spiral skid into debt and struggle knows, getting out is not a simple matter. With the death of Arthur Anderson and the “outsourcing” of a lot of tax and other accounting work, it’s not a profession that pays what it used to — and jobs of all quality are harder to find.

I don’t know much about the “big picture” economy, but I do know this: If people like us are losing this game, something is wrong with the rules. Because we followed them to the letter — and still wake up every day tense and terrified. And ready for a better way. I don’t know what that will mean for our business and our family. But I do know that we are tired of this version of the American dream.

Kathy Young is the author’s pseudonym to protect the privacy of her family.