Middle-class conundrum: Too wealthy for aid, too poor to afford

Laura Hinton, talks to her children, Emily, 15, left, and Sarah, 12, right, as she takes a brief break at home in between her two waitress jobs; one at Red Lobster and the other at Marie Callender's, in Modesto, Calif., on Monday, January 31, 2011. Laura Hinton works two different waitress jobs to help her family pay the bills and health care costs. (Darryl Bush/Modesto Bee)

For a long time, Laura and David Hinton were living their version of the American dream.

He earned a steady income as a driver for Arrowhead Water. She waitressed part time at Marie Callender’s. They owned a boat. They took their three young daughters to Disneyland. They bought a three-bedroom house more than a decade ago and decorated it with family photos and angel figurines.

Then, on May 22, 2009, the bottom dropped out.

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David was laid off from the job he’d held for 13 years — the job he’d planned to keep until he retired. When the employment ended, so did the family’s comfortable middle-class life. And so did their health insurance.

Things changed almost overnight. Laura, 38, was forced to expand her waitressing shifts from three nights a week to six. She started looking around for a second job. David, 49, looked for work, too, but prospective employers balked at his frequent migraines.

“I’ll give 110 percent unless I physically can’t work,” he told them.

In this economy, that wasn’t enough.

Laura Hinton, talks to her children, Emily, 15, left, and Sarah, 12, right, as she takes a brief break at home in between her two waitress jobs; one at Red Lobster and the other at Marie Callender's, in Modesto, Calif., on Monday, January 31, 2011. Laura Hinton works two different waitress jobs to help her family pay the bills and health care costs. (Darryl Bush/Modesto Bee)

David collected first unemployment checks, then disability, and took care of the kids. Sometimes, Laura felt a little jealous. That always had been her job.

“That wasn’t the plan,” she said. “We had a plan.”

The boat was repossessed. They filed for bankruptcy. The “fluff” money that once paid for Friday night pizza and trips to the movies now went toward milk and bread.

They applied for Medi-Cal, but were told they made too much to qualify. Made too much — and yet here they were, uninsured and struggling to hold onto their home.

They’d paid their taxes diligently for years. They’d always presumed that, should circumstances change, the safety net they’d paid into would be there to catch them.

“I presumed incorrectly,” Laura said.

They sought help at the welfare office. One well-meaning social worker suggested they get a divorce, so that Laura and the kids, at least, could become eligible for government insurance.

Laura Hinton, talks to her children, Emily, 15, left, and Sarah, 12, right, as she takes a brief break at home in between her two waitress jobs; one at Red Lobster and the other at Marie Callender's, in Modesto, Calif., on Monday, January 31, 2011. Laura Hinton works two different waitress jobs to help her family pay the bills and health care costs. (Darryl Bush/Modesto Bee)

“It was humbling,” Laura said. “Dave and I used to be critical of people on the system, thinking, ‘If they just worked harder …’ And then, there we were, realizing we had worked and worked and worked and we were in this situation.”

Not having health insurance for their daughters was the worst.

Their 7-year-old has an autoimmune disorder called Celiac disease. Their 14-year-old has asthma. Their 12-year-old has both. Laura felt powerless, like she was drowning. She’d send the girls to school, terrified that something would happen.

“I became this paranoid mom, and super protective,” she said. “I was almost not letting my children enjoy life because I was so nervous.”

The Hintons found themselves grappling with impossible questions: How long should they wait out a fever before scheduling a doctor’s visit that might cost $125? What should they tell their asthmatic daughter when the school demanded a doctor’s signature so she could use her inhaler during recess? Sneak a puff when no one’s looking? What kind of values would that teach?

Laura got creative. When her daughter had an ear infection, she posted on Facebook. A doctor at church offered to take a look, then gave her sample medications. On another occasion, when Laura herself got sick, a friend gave her some unused antibiotics; she Googled to make sure they’d be OK.

Laura Hinton, plays with her daughter, Anna, 7, in the living room, after going to church and before the start of Laura's waitress job at Marie Callender's, in Modesto, Calif., on Sunday, January 30, 2011. Laura Hinton works two different waitress jobs to help her family pay the bills and health care costs. (Darryl Bush/Modesto Bee)

Eventually, their former pediatrician found out about their situation. She suggested they enroll the girls in Kaiser’s Child Health Plan, a special program that provides full coverage for uninsured kids.

That was a huge relief.

But being without insurance is still hard on the parents. David is supposed to get shots to keep his migraines in check. He is supposed to see a neurologist.

Today, those aren’t options because of the cost. With the added stress of their financial situation, the pounding in his head sometimes gets so bad he can’t stand up. He sees other men like him working jobs for $10 an hour with no benefits. It scares him. He doesn’t want to feel hopeless.

“It’s like there’s nothing offered for the average person that’s barely making it,” he said. “There’s nothing. It’s either you’re rich, or you’re poor. Poor get the government handouts and the rich have their own money. The middle class, there’s no things offered for you.”

Recently, Laura picked up a second job, waitressing at Red Lobster. The company offers health insurance, and she’s working out how she’ll pay her share. In between jobs, she’s squeezing in nursing classes. Another dream deferred. She hopes not forever.

Laura Hinton, cooks with her husband, David, as they prepare lunch for their family after going to church and before the start of Laura's waitress job at Marie Callender's, in Modesto, Calif., on Sunday, January 30, 2011. Laura Hinton works two different waitress jobs to help her family pay the bills and health care costs. (Darryl Bush/Modesto Bee)

Laura can’t help thinking about the other mothers out there, mothers who are working and raising children all alone. Even with David’s disability check and his help with the kids, even with the Kaiser plan, she’s working herself to exhaustion trying to keep their dreams afloat. What must those other mothers go through? What impossible choices must they face?

Laura and David pray a lot. They attend church on Sundays. They do unto others as they’d have others do unto them. Recently, despite their own struggles, they took in a troubled teenager who had nowhere else to turn.

“For me, the Bible’s real clear,” Laura explained. “It says if you can meet someone’s need, then you meet it.”

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