'We Get By, That's About It': 40% Of Surveyed Vermonters Can't Cover A Surprise Expense

Oct 23, 2019

Many Vermonters would have trouble covering an unexpected bill. A VPR-Vermont PBS survey released this week found 40% of respondents said they would not be able to afford an unplanned $1,000 expense right away.

Every year, Nicole Forgan and her family get their picture taken at the Champlain Valley Fair. In this year's photo, Forgan and her partner Pat Ducharme sit with their three kids: eight-year-old Bryce and the three-year old twins, Lilyana and Zachary.

"They grow up so fast," Forgan said as she takes the picture off the wall. Her daughter Lilyana runs over, hops up to the table and begins naming everyone in the photo. Forgan smiles at her daughter and shoos away Cooper, one of the family's dogs.

The Ducharme-Forgan family in a picture taken at the Champlain Valley Fair this year.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Weekends are busy for Forgan, who's 38 and lives in Milton. There are chores to do and errands to run. The house is filled with boisterous energy, as three kids plus two dogs run around, laughing and playing.

The weekends are also the only time Forgan gets to see her partner Pat. The two have opposite schedules during the week.

"I get up in the morning and I go to work, the kids are still sleeping," Forgan said. "Pat puts Bryce on the bus and takes care of the kids till about 1:30 and then his parents come over, watches them till 3 o'clock. Then I take over from there and he [Pat] goes to his job ... and he usually gets home around 11:30."

Forgan works with kids who have behavioral issues, and Pat is a custodian. Together they bring home about $62,000 a year. Money is tight, Forgan said.

"I hate to say that I'm poor, but I am. It sucks." — Nicole Forgan, Milton resident

"We'll prioritize. I make sure that the kids have food — that's my number one, main goal, that they have what they need," she said. "And then whatever's leftover, then we pay for bills or mortgage or whatever. It's sad that we have to go that far. I would love to save, but there's no saving when you have to do that."

Forgan said she's lucky to have family nearby who help watch the kids and loan them money, but being in such a shaky financial situation is unsettling — and Forgan knows she's not alone.

"I am not the only hurting one ... and it's sad to know that we're hurting this much, and they're not paying attention," Forgan said. "And I hate to say that I'm poor, but I am. It sucks."

From the dinning room in Nicole Forgan's house in Milton, the family can see Arrowhead Mountain.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

The new VPR-Vermont PBS Rural Life Survey helps to illuminate the scale of the financial insecurity that Forgan and others face. According to the survey, 40% of respondents said they wouldn't be able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense right away.

That number is not surprising to Ellen Kahler, the executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. According to Kahler, wages in Vermont have been flat for years.

"The pace to what our costs are increasing is higher than what we're gaining in new wages, especially at the low and moderate income levels," Kahler said. "So there's a mismatch there between earnings and expenses."

As basic living costs like housing, transportation and child care increase, Kahler said it's tough to save money.

"If you're a single person living with another single person, you probably can do OK … but if you're a single parent with one or two kids, you're spending — with one child in child care, for instance, full time — you're spending almost $240 a week just on child care," Kahler said. "So there are these hard costs that we have in our lives that we need to have."

Another question in the VPR - Vermont PBS Rural Life Survey asked respondents about their ability to put aside savings. Full survey results available at: https://bit.ly/33YCJnx
Credit Kyle Blair / Vermont PBS

Another problem is the so-called benefits cliff, where people make too much to qualify for federal assistance programs like food stamps.

That's the case for Michael Currier. He and his wife, Lynn, are both on disability. He also works part time as a housekeeper at an assisted living facility. 

Altogether, the disability checks and part-time salary mean Michael and his wife earn too much to qualify for food stamps.

"We get by, that's about it," he said. "By the end of the month, we're lucky if we have about $100 left.”

Michael is 58 years old, and he's lived in St. Albans his entire life. He sits in a big red armchair, while Lynn is on the nearby couch. At least half a dozen pictures of the couple hang on the walls around the living room.

"Basically we've always been together. … I mean, we've been together for 40 years," he said.

Lynn and Michael Currier in their living room in St. Albans.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Michael Currier worked as a custodian at local schools until about seven years ago, when he had to stop working full time due to nerve damage in his hands. He holds up his right hand where, under his thumb, it looks like part of his hand got scooped out.

"So you can see where it wore out," he said, turning his hand. "All that's gone. That's from running those big heavy machines. I did floors."

Michael and wife need their car to get to medical appointments, but he didn't want to get one that was too cheap because he needed it to be safe and reliable. And he laments that it seems like everything today, from housing to food, is more expensive than it used to be.

"We go and we spend $300 on groceries, and I'm walking out of the store with less than a cart-full," he said. "When we first got married, I would have walked out of there with about three carts-full."

"We get by, that's about it. By the end of the month, we're lucky if we have about $100 left." — Michael Currier, St. Albans resident

They'll get by as they always have, Michael Currier said, but he doesn't think their situation will improve.

“As far as ... getting enough money to live in this part of the state — I'd say no, I'm not very optimistic about any of those things changing … unless we can get somebody down in Montpelier that's going to start doing more," he said.

As Michael trailed off, Lynn chimed in: "And right now they're just trying to please the taxpayers, the ones that are going to vote. But we're born-again, so I just pray for the Lord to come soon because it's not getting any better, it's getting worse."

More from Vermont EditionWhat Inspires A Bright Outlook In Vermont's Rural Communities? [Oct. 23]

Nicole Forgan, from Milton, tries to be optimistic about her situation. For example, she said when their heater broke, she was grateful it didn't happened in the winter.

"We didn't have to worry about sheltering in a hotel somewhere," she said, "we didn’t have to shelter at my parents' house. … It could have been a lot worse."

But, Forgan said, it's tough to stay positive: "There's going to be a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere, but that tunnel just keeps on getting longer and longer and longer."

Credit Kyle Blair / Vermont PBS

This fall, VPR and Vermont PBS are collaborating to present This Land: The Changing Story of Rural Vermont to explore the challenges and opportunities of living in rural Vermont — from health care and education to the economy, housing, workforce training and so much more.

This project was made possible by our supporters, and by AARP Vermont and the Vermont Community Foundation.