The Other Cliff 

The fiscal cliff? Many American families went off that a long time ago. So, what’s the true cost of a society with no safety net?

click to enlarge Lashonda Williams and two of her children, Tyjaisha and Dayshaun, have been living in a motel after their house burned Nov. 9. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Lashonda Williams and two of her children, Tyjaisha and Dayshaun, have been living in a motel after their house burned Nov. 9.

Politicians and pundits in Washington are currently obsessed over the so-called fiscal cliff, an elaborate game of chicken wherein the failure to reach a budget compromise would lead to both higher taxes and draconian spending cuts, likely plummeting the economy back into recession.

What most commentaries ignore, however, is the fact that far too many American families went off the financial cliff a long time ago. Working and low-income families have suffered from a triple whammy in recent decades: stagnant wages and vanishing jobs and the devastating impact of the 2008 recession. The result is that many families simply have no safety net — an estimated 24 percent of American households have no or even fewer assets.

This stark reality has been driven home for us in a deeply personal way, through the experience of our neighbors and friends in Byrd Park, the Williams-Garner family.

The friendly and energetic Williams-Garner children were among the very first people we met on our block when we moved here in 2007, a few weeks before the birth of our daughter. Their children have played with our daughter ever since. They've played on basketball teams we've coached and worked odd jobs for change around the house. They've come over for hot chocolate on snow days and have generally been part of the daily fabric of our lives the past five years.

On Nov. 9, three days after the election, a terrifying event took place. While two of the children were at a University of Richmond basketball game with our daughter, a house fire suddenly consumed the second floor of the Williams-Garner residence. Mother Lashonda Williams and her son, Tyquan, fortunately made it out safely, and quick work by the Fire Department managed to save the house's structure.

Most of the children's clothes were destroyed along with furniture and many other possessions. The Red Cross took Lashonda and the three kids (the eldest teenage son now primarily lives with his grandmother) to a budget hotel near The Diamond and paid for a four-night emergency stay.

What has happened since then has been an instructive story in the limits of the public safety net. Insurance examiners initially stated the house could be habitable again by Christmas, then revised that estimate to February. Since the family rents, insurance will cover the repairs but not the immediate costs of the family's displacement.

Fortunately, a fund established by Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church allowed the family to maintain two rooms at the motel for another week. The city Department of Social Services then chipped in to cover one room for an additional two weeks. At the same time, neighbors and some strangers made a number of generous donations to the families in the form of clothing, gift cards and cash.

The hotel room has kept a roof over the family's head, but having just one room led to further complications. The two boys, aged 11 and 15, have stayed much of the time in recent weeks with relatives, but no sustainable housing solution has emerged to allow the family stay together. The stresses of being apart and having children shuttled from family to family have taken an emotional toll.

As if that were not stressful enough, Lashonda's car broke down last week, further complicating the challenge of getting all the children to their respective schools and providing for the family's needs.

The reality is that the family needs short-term, affordable housing, but understandably doesn't want to enter in the emergency shelter system. Lashonda has applied for public housing but there is a months-long waiting list and no priority given to families displaced by fire.

If Lashonda could wave a magic wand and write a check for a few thousand dollars, their short-term housing problem could be resolved. Families fortunate enough to have a financial cushion don't need to make painful choices between staying cramped together in motel rooms or scattering the children around town.

This is where the lack of a public safety net comes in: There are limited public and nonprofit resources available to help families cope with emergency situations, but it's not obvious how they can be accessed, and the level of support is inadequate. In a civilized society, Lashonda would be able to make one phone call to a public or nonprofit agency and get the help she needs.

Instead, she's in the position of piecing together what she can with the help of family, friends and neighbors, calling or visiting every available agency and following up on every possible lead. While other families in Richmond are shopping and planning for the holidays, Lashonda is in a cramped hotel room with three restless kids. She has no working car and no firm plan for where the family will stay this winter.

We are confident they will make it through this crisis. But at what cost in terms of stress and anxiety?

That's the true cost of a society in which the working class and poor struggle to accumulate assets and a meaningful financial cushion, where the safety net has been continually downgraded and whittled away: fear and anxiety in the face of crisis. That burden is borne overwhelmingly by extraordinarily strong women like Lashonda who somehow manage to holds things together.

Politicians eager to cut what's left of the safety net are in effect pushing the costs onto poor families, some of whom will end up breaking under the stress during a crisis. Meanwhile, politicians in Washington treat preserving low tax rates for the very rich and the gargantuan military budget as moral priorities at a time when so many households are either in crisis or a blink of the eye away from it. Leaders in Washington would be better advised to follow the example of our neighbors in Byrd Park: pull together in support of those among us who are most in need. S

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Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. Adria Scharf is executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center. For information about this case and how to help, contact family@rpec.org.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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