Published January 3, 2012, in The Daily Record
By: Jonathan B. Rogers
In 2004, Sally Criss was living the American dream. She was a stay-at-home mom. There were cars in the garage, food on the table and lights on in the house. Although, her husband made enough money to support the family, she worked in her church’s nursery to make a little extra money.
Seven years later, Criss is 44, living in Orrville and divorced. Her children, ages 5, 16 and 19, are living with her. They survive on $1,280 a month.
The American dream turned ugly when Criss’ husband, Steve, began to drink again after being sober for 12 years. He was arrested and convicted of driving while intoxicated three times: November 2004, August 2005 and August 2009. Then he lost his job as a sales representative with her father’s dairy supply company, Independent Buyers Association of Ohio. Shortly after being demoted to warehouse custodian, he quit his job.
“The first time he was in jail for 30 days, I was 8-months pregnant,” Criss said. “There was no income and a mess of financial issues he had left behind for me to untangle.”
While her ex-husband was serving his sentences in the Wooster Community Jail, she was not getting child support and was forced to find a job.
“While Steve was in jail, it was very difficult,” Criss said. “There is now only one parent and you take on full responsibility for everything.”
The couple divorced in 2008.
“For many years divorce was not an option I considered,” Criss said.
She was able to get financial help from the Ohio Works First, a program where people in financial difficulty can receive cash assistance for 36 months. She also received $175 in Food Stamps. The program also helped her find a job at New Destinations, a thrift store in Wooster.
“When I went in for the first time, the manager said that I didn’t fit the typical ‘welfare mom’ stereotype.”
Just when things were going a bit more smoothly, Criss’ daughter turned 18 and was no longer considered a dependent. The $500 a month that Criss used to get was cut to $175 because the money her daughter earned at a part-time job was considered part of the family income.
“When the money was cut … honestly … I cried. It was such a drastic cut, winter was coming up, and I knew my gas bill would triple, Christmas was on its way, and all of my tight budget would be going to groceries.
“The tears were primarily frustration and anger for being in this situation and not knowing how to get out.”
After 10 months, Criss got out of the program and found her current job at an Orrville Goodwill thrift store.
“When she came to us for the job, she discussed going through her divorce, being a single mother, and stating that she really needed the extra help,” said Kelly Warren, the assistant manager of the Goodwill store. “She was the same as she as today. She is nice and humorous,” Warren said.
Criss has worked at the Goodwill store for a year and a half and has built good friendships with her co-workers.
“I think it’s a counseling for her. Most of the girls here are in the same boat,” Warren said.
She earns about $800 a month with no benefits and gets $480 a month in child support and the $175 a month in food stamps.
She spends about $700 a month on the phone, car insurance, and cable/ Internet bills. Her expects her gas bill to be around $300 a month this winter. She spends the $280 she has left on childcare, preschool and babysitters for her youngest child, and guitar lessons for her teenage son.
She is lucky enough to not have to pay a mortgage or car payment.
When Criss was going through her divorce, her parents, Perry and Karen Vance, paid off her house and car. “I feel guilty and ashamed that my parents spent that amount of money for us when I’m at an age that I should be paying the bills myself.”
“Those are just short-term solutions,” Karen, said. The car will still need maintenance and the bills still need to be paid. She and her husband just provided some stability in Criss’ life.
Karen can’t imagine what her daughter’s life would be like if she had to make a car and mortgage payment.
“The hard part is not doing too much to where someone loses all their self esteem and skills,” Karen said. “Of course I’m proud of her because she is so strong willed. Adversity brings out the best in people and that’s what I see happening in Sally.”
Criss doesn’t see it that way. She says she has no idea how to move herself out of poverty.
“We went from middle class to the B-rate rabble that people stereotype,” Criss said.
The poverty level for a family of four is $22,350 a year, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration. Criss makes about $15,360 a year.
“I just do without,” she said.
Criss is forced to think creatively when money is tight. She only drives when she has to and she waits until she can complete several errands at one time in order to save gas. Instead of buying multi snack packs of potato chips, she buys a large bag and divides that up for school lunches. She went from buying organic foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables to shopping at discount grocery stores and farmer’s markets. She buys a lot of off-brand products, too.
She does most of the cooking for her family. They only dine on special occasions.
During the summer, she walks her children to the park or to the pool instead of driving them there.
“I do my best to provide a normal life for my kids. I don’t want them to feel poor,” Criss said. “You have to figure out what is important. It’s a humbling experience. Then you find out you’re pretty strong.”
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