When Working Hard Still Means You're 'Working Poor'

Don't ever tell me that hard work is enough to make it in this life. I know the truth. Sometimes it doesn't make a difference how hard you work. Sometimes you just can't make it.

My story is not unique. It may be surprising, but it is not unique.

I have a doctorate. I have been employed full-time for the 35 years I have been of employable age with only a week or so between jobs. I have worked my butt off my entire adult life. I do not have a drinking or gambling problem. And I still live paycheck to paycheck.

I guess that qualifies me for being one of America's working poor.

Like anyone, when I was younger, I thought I could make it in the world if I just worked hard enough. I wanted to be a lawyer or a writer. I didn't care which. Both would have been preferred. But I dropped out of my first attempt at college back in the early '80s as a pre-law student. Big college temptations were too much for small town me. I traveled a bit, moving around as a bartender. It wasn't a bad life for a young man and it fit in with my other dream of being the vagabond writer. I knew all the famous writers probably paid their dues in similar ways. It was just a matter of time before I got mine.

I returned to college for a second attempt. Again, I wasn't quite where I needed to be to take it seriously, but I did meet the woman who would become my wife for the next fourteen years. We moved to Ohio so she could get her masters in human resources. I kept bartending.

Once my wife graduated with her masters, we moved to another city for her new job. This was also the time for me to go back to school and for us to start having a family. I got my bachelor of arts in English about a year after our daughter was born in the early '90s. I figured I could teach while I worked on the next great American novel.

When my wife started getting promotions regularly, we decided we should to go back to our home state to be near relatives and do what we were supposed to do -- keep careers rolling, get babies raised, get house payments scheduled.

Over the next decade, we realized life wasn't quite as easy as we thought. Though my wife was slowly moving herself into positions of higher pay and responsibility, I couldn't find a teaching job and had to rely on bartending. I eventually traded bartending in for some entry-level sales opportunities. I heard a person could make a decent coin in sales. If you can sell stuff, that is. Not just if you work hard.

In the late '90s I finally landed a teaching job with one of those for-profit colleges you see on TV. I wasn't a big fan of the corporate philosophy, but I loved the teaching. This was one of the few times in my life I actually felt I might be working well within the system professionally. Things were clicking along pretty well.

Until my divorce.

Hey, it happens.

Since my wife had been the major bread-winner during our marriage, the divorce obviously left me short on bread. My teaching salary was not enough to cover my own apartment, pay for my half of childcare (by then we had two kids -- a girl and a boy), and handle daily operating costs of living. I didn't have much time to get things in order, so I took on an additional job working third shift on an assembly line in a factory.

Some of my factory co-workers were aware of my situation. They said hello and referred to me as "the professor" as they passed by on the way to their breaks.

For the next two years I worked full-time during the day teaching at the college and full-time at night in the factory. I drank a lot of coffee. I lost a lot of weight. I fell asleep a lot when I got my children on the weekends.

Eventually, an administrative position opened up at the college. It wasn't the type of work that I felt I would enjoy, but it would allow me to only have to work one job. I took it to keep from dying of exhaustion. My factory friends were sad to see me go, but they understood.

This is around the time I met and married my current wife. We bought a house a few minutes before the housing bubble burst in 2006 and ended up juggling our finances to create a budget that would maintain it afterward. She supported my decision at the age of forty five to go to law school, to finally finish something I started 25 years before and hopefully nurture an opportunity for a life with less struggle. I spent the next three years working full-time at my college administration job while going to law school full-time on the weekends. I worked hard. I studied a lot. I drank a lot of coffee. I lost a lot of weight.

In December 2010, two weeks after finishing my final law school class, I came down with what I thought was a bad case of bronchitis. I went to the doctor, got some X-rays, then got a call from him telling me I should go directly to the emergency room. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. I guess those years of working hard and burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with me. I had congestive heart failure. My body was holding fluid around my heart. It was working hard to maintain 20 percent blood flow. I had the laugh at the symbolism. I spent the next week in the hospital and the next six weeks at home recuperating. I couldn't do anything, not even study for the upcoming bar exam, so I had to delay taking it and getting my attorney's license.

Hey, it happens. I would just try again later.

Unfortunately, my condition manifested itself at the end of December instead of the beginning of January, so I had to pay my insurance deductibles for both years before any insurance coverage would kick in. We had to do some creative budget adjustments to handle the extra medical costs.

Damn. We were so close to having it all happen.

The next couple of years are a blur. I failed two attempts at the bar exam by less than three points each time. Trust me, that's really close. It is difficult to find the time to study for the bar exam properly when you are working full-time. They suggest you study at least 600 hours. That's ten hours a day for two months. I was able to get in about 450 hours. And taking the test is expensive.

Excuses? Maybe. But sometimes excuses are real.

Our home dropped in value every second after we bought in 2006. When I got sick, it was worth about 50 percent of our original purchase price. That means no equity. My student loans were coming due. The parent loans I had taken out for my now college-aged children were coming due. My car broke down. My wife's car broke down. Because of my heart condition, I was taking and would have to continue taking five different medications every day for the rest of my life. Medications are expensive.

We knew we were in a bind. I borrowed every penny I could from any friend I could. Eventually, the tank just runs dry.

Hey, it happens.

I guess 2012 will be the year I say the levy broke if it wasn't my whole life already. The bank foreclosed on our house in the spring and we filed bankruptcy in the fall. My wife's parents invited us to move in with them and split the mortgage payments since they were both retired and having problems keeping their own home anyway. We really didn't have much choice. What better options did we have? We all live together now.

I still have my administrative job at the for-profit college. I recently received a $150 gift card in recognition of my fifteen years of service there. That was nice. I used it in the first couple of weeks to pay the gas for the 60 mile commute to work every day.

The bar exam has been put on hold for a while. When I was researching bankruptcy lawyers, I ran into a friend from law school at one of the firms I was shopping. He told me that it took him eight months after passing the bar to find that job, and when he was hired in they started him at a salary of... WHAT?! The number he said was about 60 percent of what I was currently making at my college job.

Damn. I thought getting my attorney's license would be my ticket to a life of less struggle. But I was obviously wrong about that.

Perhaps there is no ticket to a life of less struggle -- a life of "making it". Not even hard work.

Hey, it happens.

It happens all the time.


Dirk's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.

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