Jason H. Derr, 37, lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, Erin, and their young son. He makes $10.75 an hour working as a caregiver for adults with disabilities.
I went to school and got a graduate education, and then I graduated just before the economy collapsed. I was sending out 10 resumes a day, seven days a week, for two years. I got no interviews, no calls, worked some temp jobs and that was about it.
My wife had an opportunity to go to art school. I had a job offer. So we moved from Vancouver to Portland. And then within two weeks, the school had messed up her study visa and my job had fallen through.
I ended up at Macy's working full time -- which is, for them, 28 hours. I made just enough to pay rent. My wife and I got by for six months on last-minute miracles -- gifts, food bags, etc. My last month at Macy's, I couldn’t afford public transit, so I walked an hour to work in the rain in shoes that were not rain-proof. After Christmas, they had budget cuts and had to let me go.
I found a job as an adult caregiver about a week later because a friend of mine was working there. I'm a caregiver to adults with disabilities. It's rewarding, but it gets tedious and lacks challenges. I make dinner, give out meds, break up fights, do laundry and resolve issues. We watch a lot of “Little House on the Prairie” because that's what they want to do. It's $10.75 an hour, which isn't too bad. I'm always afraid I'm not doing enough or that I'm not working enough. I work two 18-hour shifts a week, so I get all my full time in two days. I work from 2:00 in the afternoon to 8:30 in the morning. And when I get off a shift, it takes me most of the day to recover. I was trying to pick up overtime shifts, but if you’re full time they prefer to give those shifts to the relief staff.
Sometimes, I’ll get a call for something like a last-minute 40-hour weekend shift. I have anxiety and I have a child and I can't just run away to do 40 hours a week. The anxiety is just constant terror that my family is going to starve to death.
In a perfect world, my wife would work. But she is Canadian, and we are waiting for immigration to work out. Once it does, we will be able to double our income from $20,000 a year to -- if she works at the same company I do -- around $30,000 to $40,000 a year. I don't know if that's a lot, or middle class or whatever.
I've been looking for a second job since I have most of the week free, but I've had no luck. After sending out so many resumes a week and receiving no interviews, I've slowed down, and now I am trying to find one good, solid job lead a week to apply to.
Things wouldn’t be so bad if it was just me and I had no student loan debt -- which I cannot even afford to pay. But I have a wife and a 16-month-old. So money gets tight between the three of us.
We can pay bills and buy food, and we make a game out of seeing how much food we can get for the lowest amount of money. We started a food safety box, and every time we go grocery shopping, we buy a $1 item -- pasta, canned veggies, etc. At the end of October, we had to live off that box for two weeks.
We live in a very crowded two-bedroom apartment. We're 20 minutes outside of the city of Portland, but by transit, it takes two to two and half hours to get downtown, so it's very hard to meet up with people or do things. We're kind of in a suburban wasteland, and so the nearest place to hang out is the grocery store. We do a lot of hanging around the grocery store, because there's nowhere else to go. And they have free samples, so we can pretend we're out on a date.
We have a few friends we’re able to see, but we have given up trying to have people over. We had to live in the suburbs to save money and all our friends are in the city. Regardless, we can't afford to do anything. I feel like we are unable to participate in humanity, that being alive has a buy-in cost.
I started writing a book when I was at Eastern Washington University in the creative writing department. I published it as an ebook about a year ago. I went the self-publishing route because I kept getting rejection letters that told me it was amazing but too mainstream, or that it was amazing but too experimental. I put it out to have the feeling of a little victory.
I've worked with job coaches, life coaches and vocational discernment groups. I've gone to resume experts. I am not really sure what else I can do. My passion is writing. Maybe, one day, I will make a living at it. Or I will spend my life passionately engaged with my craft, publishing where I can and living the life of a writer. That's OK. But if that's the case, I want a rewarding day job that lets me take care of my family.
As told to Andrew Perez.
Jason'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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