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Falling into poverty: A family’s story

Clockwise from left: Keil Fleischbein, 17, Clifford Fleischbein, DeeDee Varner, Reilan Fleischbein, 11, and Heidi Fleischbein, 14. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

For Clifford Fleischbein and DeeDee Varner, the past 10 years have not been easy. The San Diego couple with three children went from making over $250,000 a year to just over $36,000.

Dipping into their savings month after month; they thought things would get better. Fleischbein is an independent IT consultant. Over the past decade, he's watched most of his clients outsource his jobs overseas. When he lost his biggest client in 2002, he and his wife thought the work would fill in. But it never did. And as the economy weakened, their savings dwindled and their situation got worse.

“Before you know it, you’ve got $80,000 in credit card bills” Fleischbein says.

Adjusting to make ends meet

Fleischbein and Varner said they had to cut back on the non-essentials to get by -- little things like not going out as much and not renewing passes to fun places like the zoo. But Varner said the pain really came when they had to cut out the bigger expenditures.

“The big things like insurance, we had to stop doing,” said Varner.

And not having insurance weighs on Fleischbein. 

“You don’t what’s promised tomorrow,” Fleischbein says. “You don’t know if you’re going to get in a car accident and some jerk’s going to run into you and you’d rather be dead than alive because what it’s going to cost you. It’s only going to take one catastrophic event and then we won’t be able to keep up with it.”

What it means for the kids

Fleischbein and Varner said their children have actually been adjusting well -- learning how to live comfortably with little means. Fleischbein says they can't do everything their friends get to do. 

Heidi, the middle child in the family, says not being able to go places with her friends is something she has gotten used to.

“The kids at my school, they all go to Disneyland together a lot. They’re always like, ‘Oh Heidi, come along with us.’ And I’m like, 'Have fun you guys, take some pictures, but I can’t go,” she says. She doesn't spend much time thinking about the things she doesn't have. 

She does, however, spend a good chunk of her time practicing the harp. 

The harp is something of a vestige of their former affluent life. But Fleischbein sees the instruments a bigger part of his children's financial futures. 

"Certainly we don't have any money to pay for college. But Heidi can go play for a wedding, play for 90 minutes, earn $250. Would I want to ask her to go become a wiatress somewhere for minimum wage when she could do that?"

The other kids have to live life a bit different as well. For example, Keil, 17, is not able to drive because they wouldn't be able to afford it if he got into an accident. And no one in the family has a cell phone. These may not seem like big sacrifices, but when you’re surrounded by people who have these things, it can be a big deal.

Fleischbein and Varner’s story is a reflection of what a lot of people in America are going through right now -- having to adjust their lifestyle to survive.

They say what’s gotten them through these tough times is staying positive, waking up everyday with purpose, not feeling like  victims, and not being jealous of what other people have.

About the author

Jolie Myers is a former associate producer for Marketplace's Wealth & Poverty Desk.
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It's so easy to judge and I find with these type stories people judge much too quickly. Everyone makes it seem so easy, just get a job, just this, or just that. It's not easy and implying it is diminishes without adding anything useful. I wish we (all of us) would ask the hard questions like why we are so quick to insist those without aren't working hard enough or trying hard enough. Or why we work so hard to show one can make it on $432 a week instead of asking why someone working full time should have to. Our companies have the biggest stash of cash I can remember and our wealthy has the largest percentage of overall wealth I can remember. When did it become terrible to expect the workers to receive a fair share of the profits they helped create? Why is it so easy to suggest families move to North Dakota if they have to and why is workers asking for their fair share considered taboo? We are the society that expects our poor to apologize for being so stupid and work full time hours for pay that can't provide decent housing. We are the society that would rather keep laws in place that harm many to benefit the few because we hope we will be a part of that few. We are a society that is so short sighted and is not doing our children any favors. I almost wish we didn't have social security, unemployment, or welfare so once and for all people could not point to those as excuses to not deal with the real issues at hand. We have companies taking taxes out of our checks but keeping the revenue because these are the incentives states are forced to give to keep large companies. We have stagnate wages at the same time as soaring stock prices but anyone who points out the obvious is lazy, looking for a handout, expecting something for nothing. I think the majority (yes there are some who are all those mentioned) but the majority only want a fair wage, equal opportunities, and the ability to take care of themselves and their families.

I though this story was interesting in that is showed that you can't judge people by what they own. It is not like after losing the big client that he ran out and bought an organ and Harp then paid for lessons. What we see here is a family trying to live the "normal" life they lived before with less. It sounds like they are doing it, not as well as they like, but well enough.

Would they be better off if they moved to a new location (out of CA with its high taxes, cost of living, swamped IT market)? Likely, but most people have some attachment to the place they lived in for many years. (being a military brat it took me a long time to understand that). Earning $38k a year is not bad in much of the nation, not so much in CA.

Tess, you referred to the family who are featured in the "Falling into poverty: a family's story" as having formerly belonged or been part of the 1% when they made $250,000. a year. This is inaccurate. This is not the 1%. The "We are the 99%" movement is aimed at questioning the concentrated wealth (and their means of attaining it) of the very top earners (the 1%), not folks who are upper middleclass. Please get the facts straight, otherwise it further confuses and thus divides the middleclass. Thanks! And otherwise thanks for the show.

I work for a large Government contractor. Many Federal agencies and contractors give preference to small businesses. Also, outsourcing of IT operations overseas is often prohibited, for data security reasons. You might want to market your services to Federal agencies and contractors, if that is something you haven’t tried already. In addition to Defense, many civilian agencies and contractors (e.g, HHS - Medicare) are looking for IT services. Best wishes!

It's hard for me to feel bad when someone's income was so high. Why doesn't anyone who makes this kind of money ever save more? If you make over $100k, you should adjust your lifestyle to save half. No one does this because they don't have the discipline and want the world to know that they are affluent, but it's entirely possible. If I had ten years of this income, I could live for the next 20 with no problem. Why does anyone think the gravy train will last forever?

I am in IT as well. I cannot believe anyone with decent skills cannot fund work. Also is the wife attempting to work? These kids are school age and that should leave her time to work while they are in school.

In order for the father of this family not to be working he has put some restrictions on his job hunt and that is WRONG both for his family and the economy. Workers have to be mobile to make the best use of labor and to give themselves the best chance of a decent living. Not being able to pay for college or insurance is a very bad way to live when there are alternatives.

When my company closed their west coast office in 2009 and laid me off I tried for just a few months in the small town where I lived before deciding that moving had to be an option. Our house was under water but we would try to rent and then short sell rather than stay unemployed.

IT is not an industry in a big recession and not being able to be employed implies a larger issue such as some criminal history, bad references, or unwillingness to compromise any other part of your life.

It is impressive that this family is making due on that money and I am glad the children are adapting well but I still feel they are ignoring much better options for themselves. Perhaps a life coach could get more detailed information and give them some advice?

I lived in San Diego for ten years. It is a wonderful place. However it is a terrible place to be poor. The cost of living is way high. This is another good reason to move.

@ Mr. chris @ barnesnw.com

Sir, your writing and logic makes you out to be a buffoon. My son calls you a troll; someone on the internet just trying to piss people off.

Still, as you are commenting about me and my family, I’m compelled to respond:

1) Decent IT skills: look me up at Linkedin.com and you’ll discover that as an independent consultant since 1981, our reputation is based on innovative custom IT system designs providing integration between software databases and hardware components from incompatible vendors and making them work well for a client’s specific, custom objective.
2) My story is that of the self-employed, the small business in California, and this means there is risk involved that a clock punching employee does not understand or experience.
3) My wife, after 12 years as a public school teacher for San Diego City School District teaching English as a second language at Kearny High School (she has a Masters Degree and California Teaching Credential), decided we should not abdicate our right and privilege to educate our children. So rather than exchange hours for dollars while putting up with the antagonistic attitudes from public High School students, we chose to not have our children indoctrinated with secular humanism but instead home-school our children through a city-wide-network coalition of Christian home schools. So, my wife has been working FULL-TIME as a teacher with discipline to our three children, as well as assuming responsibility to teach English and other liberal arts to other children within the home-school network. My wife still keeps her California teaching credential current!
4) I am 60 years old in excellent health, and although I can out perform the production of many individuals 20-30 years my junior with good quality IT solutions, many prospective employers state I am “over qualified” for the IT jobs they need to fill. Most of these jobs are software programmer or hardware administrator tasks, and not systems engineering innovation tasks requiring a consultant with my expertise or years of experience.
5) While I have considered and applied for jobs out-of-state as noted above in item #4, we choose not to abandon our family trust and homestead established in San Diego in 1989. I have always been willing to travel and stay for extended periods to complete projects located throughout the nation. This was common in the 80’s and 90’s. But today, with a monthly mortgage of only $1,225 per month, relatively low property taxes because of the Jarvis bill, and only four years remaining to have the mortgage paid-in-full for this property, we believe it is a good thing for our children to have known only one home from their birth. All our family members have well established friendships within a wide network of social organizations we have joined, and moving for the sake of being “mobile to get a job” is simply foolishness to us.
6) Our family reputation is above reproach, none of us have any criminal record beyond a traffic citation, and unlike you Mr. Chris, we have NEVER been “underwater” on any of our credit obligations or received haranguing phone calls from collectors as we have always found ways to make financial ends meet, if only barely each month.
7) Mr. Chris, my situation and story is more about the loss of small business to a global economy built around massive corporate business culture held by stock holders and big international banks, and the inability of many “OLD” but innovative, productive individuals to be accepted into a fiercely competitive labor force focused on the behavior of young consumers. This story is very much about fast and cheap profits from short-lived popular consumables rather than paying for long lasting goods and relationships. We reap the results of what we sow, and the world of a global corporate economy driven by greed is sowing a whirl wind of disaster. The Fleischbeins intend to stay solid in one place, like a big reliable rock, for the sake of our family and friendships with the everlasting hope of keeping the wind to our backs. As tomorrow is promised to no one, we will take each day given and joyfully seek ways to add value to the need of others who appreciate our creative skills in exchange for a good living wage. We continue to seek work opportunities, provide cost proposals, and pray some come to fruition before the regular bills arrive by mail next month. We also pray our existing customers can partially pay their outstanding balances each month as we all depend on each other to carry the economic burden through our business accounts receivable. This is the life story and work of self-employed small business, Mr. Chris.
8) I hope this reply helps you with compassion and better understanding of others not having your job experience. I also hope you are not the troll my son suspects.

Sincerely,

Mr. Fleischbein
San Diego, California

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