One out of every three North Texans is walking a financial tightrope.
They could be knocked off by just one crisis: a medical emergency, an eviction, a job loss.
They don't have enough money to weather a financial storm that lasts 90 days.
The problem is known as asset poverty, and it doesn’t discriminate.
That crisis could be a significant illness -- and not having health insurance to pay the hospital bill. Nearly 25 percent of Texans don't have insurance, and that can plunge many into financial distress.
Fixing the problem is more than what any one family can handle, says Ida Rademacher with the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
If a third of our friends and neighbors are “one paycheck away from having to figure out a whole series of strategies to fix this gap," she says, "then that’s a community problem."
For several months, we’ve been following families in North Texas. They're trying to recover from unemployment, survive retirement, beat back debt, and fight their way through a medical crisis.
Here are their stories.
Isac and Elizabeth Madrid looked like a lot of families in North Texas: a married couple in their 20s with a young child and a house in the suburbs. Then a health emergency changed everything.
As the Madrids play with their 1-year-old son, a smiling, curly-haired boy, they’re the picture of a happy family. You’d never guess what they’ve been through in the last 18 months.
On the day little Isac was born, Dad started feeling ill. Three weeks later, the Rockwall man was in the hospital, and didn’t leave for months.
His diagnosis? Erythropoietic Protoporphyria or EPP.
Isac’s case of EPP is severe and causes a blood deficiency as well as liver failure. He’s already gotten a liver transplant and had one unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. He’s scheduled for another.
The income came 'to a stop'
Once a sturdy 210 pounds, Isac now weighs in the 140s.
With a health crisis this serious, keeping his inside sales job wasn’t an option.
“My job tried to help me out as much as possible, but they could only do so much, which I’ve very thankful for," Isac says. “I couldn’t work so my side of the income came to just a stop.”
Isac is on disability now, and it’s up to Elizabeth to earn all the family’s income.
“Before we were two incomes and now it’s just me and we get Social Security, but it’s not much," Elizabeth says. "It’s not what he used to make before. And before everything started all of our bills depended on two incomes, and that’s how everything was planned. And we were fine.”
A transplant makes its mark: Isac Madrid showed off scars from a recent liver transplant, as well as an operation in which doctors removed his spleen.
Worrying about every little thing
When your earnings drop that much, Isac and Elizabeth say your entire outlook changes.
Their mortgage payment is a constant, nagging worry. They keep the house lights low and regulate the thermostat fiercely. Even trips to the grocery store are nerve-wracking.
A major illness means new expenses to fret over -- doctors' visits and pills. Rockwall County Helping Hands, a nonprofit group, pays Dad and son’s COBRA bill. While Baylor’s drug assistance program helps with Isac’s monthly haul from the pharmacy, it doesn’t cover all 12 daily medications.
Isac, who was born in El Paso, and Elizabeth, from Monterrey, Mexico, are the definition of a family living one crisis away.
Before he got sick, things were good. Two steady jobs, two cars, a nice house in the suburbs, a little bit of savings.
But when illness snuck up on him, everything changed.
Bottles and bottles of pills: Isac Madrid with the myriad medications he takes each day.
Isac and Elizabeth Madrid were living a typical middle class life, until a medical emergency knocked them off their feet. Now, each day is a battle that starts at Baylor Medical Center.
Many 25-year-olds rise and shine with a cup of coffee, maybe "Sportscenter" or the morning paper. Isac Madrid bundles up, grabs a backpack full of medicine and reports to his doctors at 8:30 a.m. sharp.
On Nov. 11, Isac got a bone marrow transplant. Every day since, he’s been back to the hospital for labs and checkups.
Isac has a rare disorder, Erythropoietic Protoporphyria. In Isac’s case, it’s severe. Chemicals in his bone marrow build up and damage his liver. He’s been sick for more than 18 months and lost close to 70 pounds.
A wide range of emotions
One of Isac's doctors is Dr. Estil Vance with Texas Oncology.
“So the first step was a liver transplant ... and that went fantastically well, and the second part is replacing the abnormal bone marrow with the healthy bone marrow from his sister,” Vance says.
Doctors already tried a bone marrow transplant, but the graft didn’t take. This time around, they’re optimistic.
"This time, he’s doing better," Vance says. "It’s probably a lot harder coming to and from the clinic.”
Isac says the transplant, blood work and constant check-ups are physically draining. Emotionally, he’s all over the map.
“I guess you could say happy that it’s going in the right direction. But I guess you could say also a little frustrated that I’m not at the end of the process,” Isac says. “But, you know, it just takes time.”
Paying the bills: A constant juggling act
Aside from the pain he’s in, Isac battles chronic worry. He’s too sick to work, which puts his family in a tight spot financially. His disability benefits plus income from his wife’s full-time job don’t cover all their expenses, so they’re constantly juggling bills and payments. They’ve even started an online fundraising drive.
Worse still, Isac is missing precious time with his only child.
Isac has a big family that loves to celebrate the holidays, but he spent Thanksgiving in bed.
“With seven sisters, I also have 18 nieces and nephews. So it gets pretty loud, it gets noisy, everybody plays," Isac says. "We all go outside. Some of us play football, baseball. And I probably won’t get to do none of those things. I usually for the most part just last two or three hours before I’m drained out and have to go home and rest."
That's not the way a young husband and father wants to move through life.
But if this bone marrow transplant takes, Isac’s doctors paint a much brighter picture.
“Our hope would be within just a few months of transplant that he would be back to normal," Vance said.
A life that ended too soon
Sadly, that didn't happen. On Feb. 13, Isac died. A fundraising page has been established to help pay for medical and funeral expenses.
Last October, Isac reflected on the toll his illness was taking on his family.
It was hard not seeing his baby boy. "Basically, I watched him grow through pictures," he said.
It was hard, too, for his wife.
"I think she didn’t know who to really be with," Isac said. "[She was] trying to be there for me, but she needs to be there for our son, as well."
Just because you have a decent job, house and car doesn’t mean you’re financially set. Just ask Schnique and J.C. Dory, a White Settlement couple raising two kids.
They both have steady jobs, their home is pristine and there’s food on the table each night. But they’re constantly beating back debt.
The Dorys are keeping their family on track with financial planning and faith.
There’s no denying the energy of the 10 a.m. service at Trinity Harvest Church in Hurst.
On a recent Sunday, about 200 worshippers sang, swayed and traded Amens. The church is modest, a converted bingo hall in a small strip center. But there’s nothing subdued about the congregation.
“Without having the pastors that we have here, the ministry leaders that we have here, it’s no way to keep going,” Schnique Dory says. “You know, you get boggled down with work stuff, with the stresses and strains of life. This is just something to encourage you, to keep you going. Just to renew your faith in God.”
Schnique and her husband, J.C., worship at Trinity Harvest every Sunday, along with her two children, 13-year-old Jaelyn and 11-year-old Schnthia.
Schnique Dory, and her husband, J.C., live a middle-class life, but they're constantly fighting to stay ahead financially.
The Dorys look like many middle-class families. Schnique is a middle school English teacher and J.C. is a truck driver. They live in a neat, two-story home in the Fort Worth suburb of White Settlement. And they have a little money in savings.
But they’re constantly trying to stay ahead financially. Their big challenge? Coping with debt.
“We had to start using the credit card again because of a couple weeks I was off work. So now we’ve got the credit card debt back, but we’re knocking it down slowly,” J.C. says. “So we got it knocked out within six months, and it took a couple of weeks for it to come right back.”
J.C. says they live frugally. They’re careful at the grocery store. They only eat out with a coupon and they don’t jump into home improvement projects they don’t need.
But Schnique says they’re living so lean now that if something unexpected comes up, there’s no fat to cut.
“I think that would put our family in a very, very difficult position. And we would have to change our lifestyle a lot,” Schnique says. “We’re frugal. So just with us being frugal and having to dial back what we would spend, it would be a crisis.”
Schnique and J.C. Dory are trying to teach her children, Jaelyn and Schnthia, how to respect money now so they don't get into trouble later.
Schnique knows what a crisis looks like. Ten years ago, she was a single mom with no job prospects. She faced homelessness even though she had a bachelor’s degree in business.
“When I left their father, I was a stay-at-home mom, so although I had the degree, I stayed at home, so when I left, I left with nothing. Nor did he provide any support for us,” Schnique says. “So to get a job, I would have to have the money to put my children in daycare. If you don’t have the money to put them in daycare, you can’t really go out to find a job.”
Schnique found temporary housing and got her teaching certification. When she married J.C. in 2012, things started to look up.
They are raising her two kids to respect money now so they don’t get into trouble later. The message seems to be sticking.
Jaelyn says most of his friends live very differently.
“Their parents just give them money and they just go spend it," he said. "And, with me, I have my own money that I have to spend, so I watch what I spend. Unlike them, since it’s just their parents’ money and they gave it to them, they just blow it.”
Jaelyn and Schnthia say their mom has always been up front with them about their money situation. When both kids were a little younger, their mom handed over her monthly salary, their expenses and told them to make a budget.
But the Dorys say their finances are far from perfect. J.C. says there’s a lot more he’d like to accomplish financially.
“I’d like to have retirement in my savings fund, that’s what I’m working for," he says. "You know, when it’s time to retire, to have the money to be able to retire."
That means hard work -- and strong faith.
“You have to believe in something bigger than yourself. It seems like I could never get caught up until I started paying my tithes,” J.C. says. “It’s when I put it in faith’s hands, in God’s hands, that the money started coming back to me anyway.”
That's something the Dorys try to always remember.
Unemployment is one of the most forbidding words in the English language. If you don’t have money socked away for emergencies, losing a job can wreck your finances.
Natalie Berquist, a Lewisville mother of two, lost her job in late 2012. Even though she found another job in less than a month, she faced homelessness. She's still digging out of a financial hole.
Berquist, 42, has two children; a daughter in her early 20s, and Samuel, a happy, tow-headed 4-year-old.
“If I would have had him first, I probably wouldn’t have had any other kids!” Natalie jokes. “He gives me a run for my money every day. If you can jump off of it, climb it, break it, tear it up, that’s Samuel. But I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Natalie’s daughter, Nicole, has her own family now; they live in San Antonio. So it’s just Natalie and Samuel sharing an apartment. It’s in a gated complex that’s new and clean. But their unit is pretty much empty.
Choosing savings instead of a sofa
She’s not exaggerating. There are only two pieces of furniture in the entire place -- a little bed for Samuel and a futon that mom sleeps on.
No tables, no chairs, no sofa, no desk.
Natalie says that’s fine. She’d rather put her money in the bank than sink it into a living room set.
Saving money has always been difficult for Natalie, but her financial troubles boiled over in December 2012. She was working for a mortgage company when her division got bad news.
“The president of the company stands up and says 'Oh, we’re letting you guys go. You’re going to get a 30-day written letter of notice and Dec. 31 is your termination date, and thank you for your employment here and don’t ask for severance,'” Natalie says.
Her lease was up the same month. With no solid leads on a new job, Natalie had to let her apartment go.
She stayed in a hotel room. Then she got some help finding housing.
'I don't have any security'
Shared Housing matches people who need a room or two with folks who have them to spare. Even though Natalie bounced back from her layoff quickly, landing another job within a month, she stayed in Shared Housing for eight months.
Natalie loves her new position in customer service for a mortgage company called Nationstar. But even with steady employment, she has no wiggle room financially.
“Definitely, I don’t have any security," she says. "The security that I have will be every year when I get my income tax, but that always seems to go somewhere to something. So, basically, I live paycheck to paycheck.”
Since her time in Shared Housing, Natalie says she’s learned about managing money. She’d rather have a savings account than a sofa, she and Samuel are drinking water instead of soda, and she’s doing all she can to be indispensable at work.
While her apartment may be mostly open space, that just means more room for Samuel to play.
Several weeks after we visited Natalie, her life took another turn. She and her young son, Samuel, had to give up their apartment. A new monthly bill jolted her finances.
A court agreement with Samuel’s father requires Natalie to buy health insurance for their child.
“It’s a very hard choice," Natalie said. "Do I put a roof over my head? Or do I have insurance and go to a shelter?”
Here’s what Natalie tried. First, she applied for assistance from programs like Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Both those applications were denied.
“It doesn’t work out," she says. “I’m working, I’m productive, I’m paying taxes, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to -- but, still, there’s zero help.”
A punch in the stomach
Then, Natalie looked into coverage under the Affordable Care Act. She, like many people, had trouble logging onto the website. Her employer offers insurance. Because she was up against an enrollment deadline at work, that’s the policy she chose. But she says the monthly premium is more than she can afford.
“That’s $400. Even lowering my apartment rent and going to the smallest apartment here was not going to work. It still left me short paying food, electric, gas and phone,” Natalie says.
And because she can’t go without any of that, in order to buy insurance, Natalie had to let her apartment go.
She applied for beds at a local shelter. She was denied. But her brother agreed to let her and Samuel share a room in his house for a small, monthly rent.
“I just feel like somebody punched me in my stomach," Natalie says. "It’s just such a sickening feeling to know that kind of like everything I had worked for and got to this point, it seems like it has gone down the drain."
Stuffing clothes into garbage bags
Natalie is happy she’ll be able to save money by bunking with her brother. But she’s worried that moving for the second time in less than a year will be hard on her little guy.
“I’m grateful I don’t have to go back to the shelter, I guess. That’s been very tough for Samuel. He doesn’t understand that,” she said. “'Why are we losing our house?' I mean he was 3 years old and knew that last time, and I mean here he is, four-and-a-half.”
It’s that same dynamo, a kid who cracks himself up playing tricks on his kitten, who motivates Natalie to keep going. Even when things look bleak, even when she’s stuffing clothes and toys into garbage bags so she can move her little family yet again, Natalie says she has to persevere.
“You have to hope, you have to dream, you have to know and believe that there is going to be something better and reach for it,” Natalie says. “Because if you don’t have any dreams and hopes and you don’t reach for something else, you’re going to stay in the same spot. And you don’t want to do that.”
Preparing for retirement is daunting for anybody. Without an inheritance, a hefty pension or a 401K, it can be tough to get by.
Take Shirley Martin. She’s 72, she lives in DeSoto and she’s struggling to make ends meet. But instead of getting discouraged, Shirley’s getting creative.
When you walk into her cozy home, one thing is clear: In the kitchen, she’s the master.
For this meal, her daughter Anita is playing the role of sous-chef as Shirley bustles from sink to stove to oven. She’s making baked chicken over seasoned spinach, and she sets the whole dish off with fluffy saffron rice and colorful vegetables.
Shirley has been cooking since she was a teen -- at first because she enjoyed it, and then professionally.
“I started at Hockaday School in ’63 and I started as a line server," Shirley says. "So it came up that we needed a cook, so I tackle anything and I said, ‘I want to take that head cook’s position.’ I did, and I just went by recipes, but I’m always one to do my own thing. If you kind of put your touch into anything, it makes it better."
She left her job at the Dallas private school in her late 50s after suffering a brain aneurysm. Once she recovered, she took other cooking jobs, one at a church and another catering parties. Shirley, a breast cancer survivor, has hung up her professional apron, but still loves the kitchen.
'It's hard to save'
Shirley, who’s divorced, gets a Social Security check every month and an annual retirement from her time at Hockaday. But with no savings, she doesn’t have enough to pay the mortgage and her bills.
“It’s hard to save. You save it today, you spend it today,” Shirley says.
To stay above water, she turned to Shared Housing, a nonprofit that provides her with tenants.
She leases out two rooms in her four-bedroom ranch style house for $400 a month apiece. Her two boarders are as much a part of the household as Shirley’s family photos and antique cooking molds.
“If they weren’t here, I wouldn’t be able to make it, it’s just as simple as that,” Shirley says.
She has family nearby to make sure her tenants are on the up-and-up.
“I have a grandson and he’s going to come and give them the third degree, and Anita, my daughter, they check them out, they kind of feel them out," Shirley says. "A lot of people ask me, 'How do you take strangers into your home?' Well, I just have that kind of faith and I know they need the help."
Worrying about money every day
Even though many people her age no longer work, Shirley works 19 hours a week as a receptionist at a south Dallas Salvation Army. It provides a little extra income that she needs -- she makes $7.25 an hour, or more than $400 a month. She enjoys her job, helping folks who call in figure out where to find help.
Still, she worries about money every day.
Shirley says while financial concerns are top of mind, she’d rather focus on what’s good in her life – a loving family and those kitchen skills. That’s a gift everyone’s grateful when they gather at Shirley's house.
Shirley’s dream is to one day start her own nonprofit that helps people find affordable housing. She says her love for charity must be inherited.
“When I was a little girl, my mother used to take a red wagon and go around the neighborhood and take up canned goods and stuff. For whoever was not as fortunate as we were,” Shirley recalls. “And that’s the same feeling I have today when I take people in from Shared Housing or anywhere. I feel that same way. I just think, 'If I could do it, I would.'”
And despite her own struggles, Shirley is.
Texas is a big state, with a big heart. That means many nonprofit organizations and charities are ready to help citizens in need. But sifting through all the options can be overwhelming.
The first step can be as simple as dialing three numbers -- 2-1-1.
Since the lines opened in 2000, 2-1-1 has been a popular number in North Texas.
The Community Council of Greater Dallas runs the 2-1-1 call center in Dallas, which serves eight North Texas counties and gets almost 2,000 calls a day. In 2012, the group took more than 630,000 calls. The calls grow up to 20 percent each year, says Jacqueline West, the group's deputy director.
The most common 2-1-1 calls are from people who need help paying utility bills or finding a food pantry. Operators get many calls about healthcare, too, as well as Medicaid and now Obamacare. But 2-1-1 can offer other referrals, including childcare, and places that offer legal assistance.
Many 2-1-1 callers are low-income, but Executive Director Martha Blaine says people with steady jobs need help too -- folks who are just one crisis away from financial trouble.
“It is hard for families, especially those who have never had to seek help outside their immediate family before,” Blaine says. “We’re seeing that increase now, people that have never used social services don’t even know what’s available.”
But don’t worry about that, Blaine says. If you need assistance, just dial.
All the nonprofit organizations that 2-1-1 refers callers to have been checked out, which means you don’t have to worry about scams.
West hopes that’s enough to calm the nerves of first-time callers. Too many people who need help end up hesitating.
“By the time people call here, they’re almost in a 9-1-1 situation even though they’re calling 2-1-1," West says. "Because their needs are so urgent that they need help right away."
There are many nonprofit groups in Texas devoted to financial assistance. Here's a list of places where people can go to find help.
YouCaring is a free fundraising website created for individuals wanting to raise funds for medical expenses, memorials and funerals, education and tuition assistance and adoption fundraising, among other things. Learn how to make a page here.
Shared Housing Center, Inc.
The Shared Housing Center offers housing options and supportive services that foster independence, empowerment, and self-worth. Their Homeshare Program helps to match up people who have more housing than they need with people and families in need of a place to live.
AARP is a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping families and individuals with an emphasis on healthcare, employment security and retirement planning. State-level chapters like like AARP Texas ocus on the needs specific to people over the age of 50 in each state.
Rockwall County Helping Hands
The Rockwall County Helping Hands assistance and referral program provides residents in financial crisis with assistance for critical needs. Financial help is available for utility bills and housing payments. Staffers also operate a food pantry, thrift store and health clinic. Get connected.
Community Council of Greater Dallas
The Community Council of Greater Dallas was founded in 1940 and is an umbrella organization focused on community service. The Community Council’s research and action plans resulted in the incubation and birth of social services including:· Dallas Family Court, the Dallas Area Agency on Aging, Head Start of Greater Dallas and Community Dental Care, to name a few. For a list of services, click here.
In Texas, 2-1-1 gives you access to the most appropriate sources of help and information. Anywhere in Texas, anyone can call 2-1-1 for free information and referrals to health and human service agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, disaster relief resources, and volunteer opportunities. Click here for frequently asked questions about 2-1-1.
Health Insurance Marketplace
Search for health insurance policies under the Affordable Care Act. You can apply for coverage or shop for plans before you decide to apply. If you enroll by Feb. 15, your coverage will begin March 1. Visit the website to learn about your options.
One Crisis Away is funded in part by the Communities Foundation of Texas, The Allstate Foundation, the Dallas Women's Foundation, The Fort Worth Foundation and the Thompson Family Foundation.
KERA's series One Crisis Away is following four families on the financial edge. The project includes radio stories, videos, blogging, and conversations on Think. A public forum was held at the Dallas City Performance Hall on Feb. 27, 2014.