Economy pushes people over edge and onto welfare Middle-class workers ask for public aid.

November 19, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

William C. Anderson had worked hard for 30 years and figured he would have no trouble finding work when he sold his tropical fish store last December for legal reasons.

Eleven months and 100 job applications later, he has gone through his savings and 20 weeks of unemployment benefits. His only "income" is $111 a month in food stamps. He has filed for personal bankruptcy and expects to lose his home to foreclosure within months.

"You work your whole life and, for what? It's going to be all gone," said Anderson, sitting in his Middle River home. "I used to figure it was derelicts [who received public assistance]. It can happen to anyone and it can happen fast."

Job loss is not a problem that exists in isolation. In Anderson's case, family issues and legal concerns indirectly led to his financial problems. For other families, it has worked in reverse -- the stress over job difficulties ends up destroying the family.

Here are three stories behind the numbers, illustrating the personal and professional calamities that have transformed middle-class families into welfare recipients.

*

"I feel like I have the plague."

-- William C. Anderson

At Polytechnic High School, Anderson had a best friend named Bernie. They had the same birthday, they were left-handed, they hung out together, they chased girls.

Now, they're unemployed together, Anderson says, along with several other members of the Class of '60.

"Isn't that something?" Anderson mused. "Two old, close friends, both of them lost their jobs in the past year."

There's no self-pity in his voice. By nature an optimist, Anderson keeps hoping his luck will change.

He started in the tropical fish business as a stock boy. He worked at a store on Belair Avenue for about 20 years, working his way up to sole owner. The store, Al's and Jerry's, moved to Loch Raven and Taylor about 10 years ago. Business was steady.

But when Anderson's wife left him, he said, his lawyer advised him not to sign a new lease on the property that could complicate the divorce settlement. So he closed the shop.

"I'd been working 30 years, I figured it was going to be easy," Anderson recalled. "I'd never had to look for work in my life."

Anderson, a tall, lanky man with impeccable manners and a guileless charm, decided to live off his savings and conduct a methodical job search.

His savings were gone by spring, however, and there was no job in sight. Anderson started collecting unemployment, kept sending out letters and attending job fairs. His pile of rejection letters grew fatter and fatter. Circuit City. Godiva Chocolatiers. Not even Wendy's could find a place for him.

In August, no longer able to pay his mortgage, Anderson went to the Department of Social Services for help. By September, he was one of the county's 2,596 non-public assistance food-stamp recipients. He got $76 in coupons at first, but the amount increased to $111 when his unemployment benefits ran out last month.

He has filed for personal bankruptcy and expects the bank to foreclose on his home within the next few months. He is still looking for a job, but figures he has to make at least $10 an hour to support himself.

He says he is willing to consider any kind of work -- painting houses, flipping hamburgers -- if he can make enough to get by.

"If you had told me I'd be in this position even a year ago, I would have said something was wrong with you," Anderson said.

But the worst part of his plight, Anderson said, is the sense of abandonment. Two friends have remained in touch, but others have cut him off, either because of embarrassment or discomfort.

"Folks I've known for 30 years don't know me any more," he said. "I'm thrown out -- just a throw-away."

*

"We just kept fighting and arguing, until I got to the point where we couldn't get along any more."

-- Carol Benny, 29, trained as a drafter, now a pizza delivery woman.

Carol Benny sat on a hard wooden bench, watching her 2-year-old daughter, Dustilynn, play with the bedraggled toys in the waiting room of the Essex office of Baltimore County's Department of Social Services.

It was Benny's first trip to the office and she was apprehensive. She wasn't sure if welfare and food stamps would be enough to supplement the money she earned delivering pizzas.

Sometimes, Benny confided, it seems as if her whole world has turned upside down in the short span of Dustilynn's life.

Three years ago, pregnant with her daughter, Benny graduated from a nine-month drafting course. After giving birth, she held a succession of drafting jobs, earning up to $10 an hour.

Her husband was an iron worker, earning good money. The family of four -- the couple also has a son, Steven Jr. -- was living the life that Benny expected for herself. Solid, secure, comfortable.

But as the economy weakened, the market for Benny's skills dried up. She took a job in Reisterstown, paying only $8 an hour. Then the boss wanted to cut her wages to $5 an hour. She had to quit.

"With the gas and the baby sitter, you can't do it," she explained.

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