By Sarah Ngu
The stack of junk mail was sitting there on the table. Eric Allen started rifling through it and was about to throw out the whole stack, when a leaflet caught his eye. It was covered with images of shining, gold coins, and asked, in stark font, “Are you struggling financially to keep up with taking care of your kids or your elderly parents?” At the bottom was an email address to contact: [email protected]
The leaflet seemed like a providential answer to Eric’s prayers. For the past few years, he had been running on fumes. He was scrambling to hold down a full-time job, take care of his ailing parents and his injured wife who recently slipped and fell. Over time, the care-taking bills started to creep up, and his wages as a doorman in the Upper West Side -- $40,720 – couldn’t keep pace.
For the first time in his life, he fell behind on rent this fall. After three months had gone by without receiving payment, his landlord threatened eviction, so they went to court. Eric argued that he just needed another month until the end of the Christmas holidays, when he would receive tips, to pay what he owed. The judge sided with their landlord and told the Allens they had until the end of November – two weeks from then – to come up with the rent they owed, if not they would be evicted from their one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens where they had lived for 20 years. If evicted, they likely would’ve had to move out of the neighborhood, as rental prices have skyrocketed in Flushing in recent years. This neighborhood was vital to their lives; it had easy access to stores and great public transportation, for it provided subway, train, and bus options to get into Manhattan.
It was the following day that Eric received the leaflet, with the gold coins, from his Assemblyman, Ron Kim. Figuring that he might as well try, he pulled out his cell phone and fired off a quick email, with the subject line: “Please help me with my finances,” explaining that he was working full-time but his wife, who was very sickly, was not.
Everything is on me right now bills food and medicine and I don’t know what is first, put food on the table or paying bills. And I pray and read the bible everyday and hope that you can help.
Kim’s office managed to miraculously secure a grant for the Allens, the day before Thanksgiving.
“I don’t know where I would’ve been without the grant. There was no backup.” Eric said. “I feel kinda bad. I let my wife down.” He avoided eye contact with his wife, Sarah, who was seated to his right in Kim’s office.
In truth, the last-minute grant, while critically important, would not have been necessary under Kim’s newly introduced bill, Inclusive Value Ledger (IVL), which was also co-sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar.
The vision behind IVL is to redesign money so that we, as a society can capture and monetize “soft work,” which might look like caring for elderly parents, staying at home to raise children, or cleaning up public parks. In this vision, Eric’s care-taking labor for his parents and wife would be translated into spendable tax credits, accessible over a smartphone that can then be exchanged for other products and services. If he was compensated for his care work, Eric would certainly not have fallen behind on his bills. He would not have had to choose between paying for medicine, food, or rent. He would not have felt the shame that he visibly carries with him, even now, for failing to provide.
Eric and Sarah are African-American and in their early fifties. They met while working in the World Trade Center in the late ‘80s. After dating for a handful of years, they decided to get married. Right around that time Eric got an opportunity through his brother-in-law to work as a doorman, so he took it. The job involved working the graveyard shift from midnight to 8am, but it came with benefits and the pay was decent. Sarah soon stopped working and they were able to live off Eric’s income alone.
The Allens’ budget started to really tighten about five years ago. The handful of affordable grocery stores around them closed down, replaced by expensive apartment buildings. Sarah became diagnosed with diabetes, so they had to start ordering separate groceries for her: sugar-free apple juice, sugar-free baked goods, etc. Rent had also been steadily increasing every two years, and Eric’s salary wasn’t keeping pace.
The final straw that wiped the Allens’ savings was the care-taking of their parents, who have all passed away within the past five years. While Sarah had help from her siblings in taking care of her parents, Eric was on his own, as his siblings had all moved to North Carolina.
“I was so tired, I couldn’t even sleep – we had no help,” he said. A typical schedule was as follows: He would go into work at midnight and leave at 8am. He would grab a quick breakfast from Burger King for both him and Sarah and then visit his mom’s nursing home in Flushing. Sarah would stay at the nursing home until the evening to help his mother with various tasks, unless she had to rush off to see her parents, and Eric would then head home to get a few hours of sleep. In the late afternoon, he would check on his dad in the hospital. On the weekends, he visited his parents’ house in Jamaica, a neighborhood just east of Flushing, to manage the property and pay bills. Fom 2013 up until 2017, when both his parents had passed, Eric averaged only a few hours of sleep every night.
“It was my second job. I had a full-time job too, but only one paid,” he said, adding that the stress got to him so much that he lost thirty pounds in the span of one year.
A World War II veteran, Eric’s father prided himself on being independent and wasn’t great at asking for help. A few years ago, Eric started to probe and once asked his father where his bills were.
“They’re in the dresser,” his father pointed, shrugging.
Pulling open the drawer, Eric saw a huge pile of bills that were entirely unopened. “It took me 3 hours to clean up everything,” he said.
Soon, it fell on Eric to pay for his parents’ property taxes and food, as well as their stack of bills for electricity, water, oil, gas, cable, etc. After a year at the nursing home, his mom returned back to their house, this time with a 24-hour home attendant. The house was crammed with furniture and items stored for both his parents and Eric’s siblings. Since most everything had to be cleared before the attendant could work and live there, Eric spent several weekends and paid over $2,000 – the equivalent of more than two weeks of work – to remove the carpet, clear junk, and purchase a bed and dresser for the attendant. Eric was lucky enough that all major medical bills were sufficiently covered by his parents’ savings, so he avoided flat-out bankruptcy, but his savings were still wiped clean.
His father passed in 2016 and then his mother in 2017. It was tremendously sad for Eric, but it at least meant a bit of a break for Eric -- until his wife’s back started acting up. She had slipped and injured her back four years ago, knocking it against the handle of her dresser, while shining the floors. After ignoring the injury for a few years, she started to feel acute pain in her back last year. Her back problems have descended to her left leg, and today, she cannot walk steadily without holding onto something. At night it gets worse, as her left leg—from the knee to the ankle—shakes uncontrollably. She’s had two falls already, both times while Eric was still at work, and has had to be rushed to the emergency room.
“We used to go out every Saturday and have a good time, but now we can’t do that no more,” Eric said. Saturdays are now his busiest day, as he has to go food shopping and clean up the house. Almost all of the domestic labor that Sarah used to do now falls on Eric, since it is hard for her to do things by herself.
“Next year I’ll take a vacation,” he said, explaining that he worked through every single holiday this year in order to make extra money. “The last decent vacation was when we went to San Francisco back in ’98.”
Although they have good health insurance through Eric’s union, the costs of co-pays for Sarah’s doctor visits and regular insulin pen needles have added up. At some point this summer, Eric looked at his bank account and, with a sinking feeling, realized that not only were their savings depleted, but they didn’t have enough to cover rent for the first time in their lives. “I had to choose between buying food, rent or medicine,” he said. Eric was certainly not alone in his predicament; nearly six in ten Americans do not have enough savings to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense.
So he and Sarah decided to work up the courage to call an out-of-state friend and a family member in Long Island to ask for help. But one of them had just gotten knee surgery, and the other simply couldn’t help.
“It was kind of hard and embarrassing. It was the first time [asking for help],” Eric said, his eyes moving towards the floor, his body slouching over. “You learn from your mistakes, make sure you don’t do it again. Every day I feel like crying but I can’t do that. I’m the one that makes the money but it wasn’t there the last couple of months.”
The pressure to provide -- and the guilt when one fails to do so -- falls on men disproportionately more than women. Studies show that while suicide rates go up for everyone during economic recessions, they rise even higher for men. Although Eric blames himself, the real culprit lies not in his actions, but in the stagnancy of his wages – and all wages in America – over the past two decades relative to the rising cost of living, and the extra bills that piled on due to the caregiving labor that he had no choice but to assume. Caregiving is costly, not just in terms of time but also money. Remunerating people like Eric for their currently unpaid caregiving labor creates a buffer so that caregivers do not fall behind on payments and spiral into debt or eviction.
“It’s been a bad 2019,” Eric said, his head in his hands. “The holidays are coming up—I’m used to my parents being around.”
Sarah chimed in with a more upbeat voice, trying to make eye contact, “I feel proud of him. Since we’ve been married, he works hard and helps a lot. I tell him that every day. I just don’t know what I’ll do without him—and that’s the problem.”
To find out more about the Inclusive Value Ledger and the movement behind compensating care work, go to inclusive.money.