Fredericksburg Mom Provides for her Kids, Makes Tough Choices
Sleeping in a makeshift bedroom in her mom’s garage with no central heat or air wasn’t where Lauren Polen pictured herself at the age of 30.
“I live with my mom,” said Lauren, who is raising her 7-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. “Me and my two children moved in probably four years ago, and we’ve lived here ever since. We were living in Maryland, and I just really hated being away from family. I just wanted to be closer to them, so we moved back thinking it would be temporary, and it wasn’t temporary.”
Polen longs to have a place of her own, but isn’t able to make that happen with her current income.
“The dream for me is to have my own home in a nice neighborhood that my kids can call their own, and they can tell people that’s their home,” said Polen, who loves her full-time job at NSWC Federal Credit Union but has had to make some difficult choices for her family. “I just don’t make enough money. If I want my children to stay in the schools that they are in I would have to make a lot more money, or have a second job. I could afford to live in maybe Spotsylvania, or Caroline, but not in Fredericksburg.”
Polen’s situation is not unique. She is ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed) an acronym that defines local families and individuals who work hard and have earnings above the Federal Poverty Level, but not enough to afford a basic household budget.
With the cost of living higher than what 39% of Virginian’s earn, the Virginia ALICE Report shows these households often have to choose between paying for child care, food, transportation, and health care.
For Polen, living with her mom after relocating was the only way she could make things work.
“My son is autistic and he was doing a lot of therapy,” said Polen, who could only work part time when she first relocated due to his appointments. “It was 10 hours a week of therapy, and it was at our home. There was no way I could have worked full time and gotten him to therapy and done all the things that he required at home. It was really hard. I didn’t know what he was going to need, and how much it was really going to cost. How much insurance was going to pay for.”
For ALICE households, juggling bills and always worrying about money is common.
“I’m employed,” said Polen, who raves about her company and couldn’t ask for a better boss. “I don’t make bad money but I don’t make enough money to live in Fredericksburg and have my own home and raise my two children by myself. It’s very frustrating. And, it’s embarrassing. I can pay for my children to do what they need and pay for their activities but I can’t pay a mortgage. I can’t pay rent. I live pay check to pay check.”
After two recent surgeries, one of Polen’s issues is keeping up with all the medical bills.
“I would love to help my mom with more bills,” said Polen, who is insured through the government Marketplace because of the high cost of health insurance for herself and her children. “Right now I’ve had a lot of medical bills come in that I’m struggling with. I wake up thinking about money.”
Polen has thought about going back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in hopes of getting a higher paying job or moving to an area that has less expensive housing. She hasn’t acted on those thoughts because they could have negative consequences for her kids.
“It’s a constant battle of choices,” said Polen. “My kids always win though. If they have an activity, that’s what we do. If their activities mean that I don’t go back to school right now, then I don’t go back to school right now. I have to wait. My kids need me and my kids need the best that I can give them. They deserve better than I can give them.”
For Polen, although living with her mom is not ideal, it has allowed her time to get her son the help he needed and has given her the ability to afford activities like baseball and gymnastics that they’d otherwise have to do without.
“He’s doing great,” said Polen about her son, who benefitted greatly from all the hours of therapy for his autism. “He used to wear costumes all the time, because he was very uncomfortable in his own skin. They had to cover his face completely, too, so no one could see him. Although he does still love costumes very much, he doesn’t wear them everywhere he goes. He can make friends, he can talk to anybody. He probably won’t hug you, but he will talk to you.”
What’s the long-term solution for ALICE families like Lauren Polen?
Rappahannock United Way is currently leading the way in Virginia to find solutions that will allow individuals and families to achieve their potential through education, financial stability and healthy living. In July, United Ways across Virginia will unveil the first statewide ALICE Report. This report clearly shows who ALICE is, where ALICE lives, and how ALICE struggles in the state of Virginia.
“I would love to find out more about programs that would help me get over that hump and not be ALICE,” said Polen.
To learn more about ALICE and how Rappahannock United Way is working to find solutions for these families and individuals, visit www.VirginiaALICE.org