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Cash-strapped Christmas

Mitchell Hartman Dec 15, 2011

Tess Vigeland: The average American will spend just over $700 on holiday gifts this year. At least that’s what the National Retail Federation is predicting. But many Americans, of course, will spend virtually nothing. Unemployment and foreclosures have forced many more households to cut budgets to the bone this year.

Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman explores how some families are coping with the new reality of a holiday season in which they are no longer middle class.

Mitchell Hartman: I first met Chalene Macon at the Oregon unemployment office in downtown Portland. She’s a tall, handsome woman of 33. And as I was watching her click briskly through her job search, she struck me as someone impatient to get on with life — which hasn’t treated her so well lately. She lost her job as a high school English teacher in Alaska over a year ago. Her $400-dollar-a-week unemployment checks just ran out. Now, she’s down to $500-a-month in public assistance.

Yet when I asked whether she’d go to the local food bank…

Chalene Macon: I kind of have an attitude that if, you know, I’m surviving, I’m really not in need, there’s other people who are in worse situations than me.

Still, she’s got a 13-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl at home. They need winter coats and school supplies — and what about Christmas presents? How could she manage that? She invited me to come find out.

Sound of knock

Hartman: Hi.

Macon: C’mon in. You can have a seat there.

Hartman: I’ll make friends with the dog first.

Macon: He doesn’t bite. Not at all. Lay down. Lay down. Lay down!

Macon’s apartment backs onto a noisy freeway. She shares the single bedroom with her daughter; her son sleeps on the couch or stays with his grandparents, who live nearby. There’s a TV and computer, a cramped little kitchen. And about the only brightly lit thing in the whole place, a Christmas tree.

The six-year-old daughter — they call her “Bean” — gives me the tree tour.

“Bean” Macon: My mom decorated it with me. I made this up at my old school.

Hartman: What is it?

Bean: It’s a heart with a picture of me on it.

The Christmas tree’s the family’s only splurge this year: $25 at a local department store.

Macon: We’ve never not had a tree. It’s not acceptable for me to not have a tree.

A couple years ago, Macon owned a condo and made nearly $50,000 a year. Then came job loss, divorce, foreclosure and bankruptcy. She moved to Colorado looking for work then to Portland, where her parents could at least lend a financial helping hand.

Her 13-year-old son says compared to the wealthy neighborhood where they were living in Colorado, at least in this working-class section of Portland his poverty doesn’t stand out.

A.M. Macon: When we were in Colorado, we were two reduced-free-lunch people, in comparison to people who might have a 40-inch TV and might go get another one the next day. Here I’m pretty average, as far as getting what I want or need.

For Chalene, getting what her kids want and need is like climbing a mountain.

Macon: Worrying about if I’m going to be able to provide a decent Christmas on my completely non-existent income. We have never been lacking at Christmas. This year, it’s been work. I’ve had a lot of help, but it’s still really stressful, umm…

The help she’s talking about comes from her parents, who are comfortably middle class. But it also comes from the 13-year-old. He’s into video games and sports. But when I ask what he wants for Christmas…

A.M. Macon: My interests are slimming down from a broader range of stuff, so I don’t really ask for that much, nearly as much as I used to.

But that is a lot harder for a 6 year old. I asked Bean what she’s hoping to find under the tree.

Bean: A remote-control airplane actually. We saw it in a commercial. It’s cool, it’s called a “Hawk Eye Blue Sky.” There’s something that I really want called “Pokemon.”

So, at $64.99 on Amazon, the remote-control plane isn’t even remotely likely, unless it comes from the grandparents.

Macon: It’s not like I keep it a secret and make them feel like I’m just a stingy mom. So they understand that things are tight, so we can’t do as much as we once were able to do.

This is how the wise six-year-old understands it:

Bean: We were never rich, we just had a little money. We’re not poor. We just don’t have $100.

Reporting from Portland, Ore., I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

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