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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