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Why Can’t Allyson Get Ahead?

The U.S. economy is growing, but for workers, it’s longer hours, lower pay and almost no security. What happened to the American dream?

Allyson Costello with her son, Atlas.Allyson Costello with her son, Atlas.

Allyson Costello with her son, Atlas.

Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Allyson Costello stared at the two lines on her pregnancy test and knew — immediately and beyond a shadow of a doubt — that she would get an abortion. She was 21 years old. She was on the pill, taking it religiously every morning. And it had been only a few months since she’d received a Facebook message from Andy, the first boyfriend she’d ever had, back in middle school, but now virtually a stranger. She learned that he was currently living way out in the country somewhere in Kentucky, that it was beautiful there, but also lonely. She had just gone through a breakup herself and could relate to the loneliness. They started writing, then they started talking. Eventually, he asked if she would fly up from Florida to visit.

At the time, Allyson wasn’t looking to change her life. She had an associate’s degree and was working on her bachelor’s. She and a roommate rented a small but well-kept apartment in downtown Orlando, walking distance to Allyson’s school and her job at Starbucks and any number of places to meet up with friends.

They’d bought nice furniture; they’d outfitted the kitchen. “It was so desirable,” she tells me. “Anybody would have wanted to live there.” At Starbucks, Allyson made around $9 an hour, plus her share of the tip jar. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was more than minimum wage, and with only herself to take care of, she could make it stretch pretty far. She even had savings, a small cushion to fall back on. She was proud of her grown-up way of life.

With her blue-collar background, she says, she’d long aspired to something more than the lifestyle provided by her mother’s bartending job and her father’s job in construction. “I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck and struggling,” she explains. “I wanted something better than that.” And she thought she knew how to get it. “I knew nothing would be given to me. I mean, when you come from a family that doesn’t have a whole lot of money and everyone you know comes from families who don’t have a lot of money and the area you live in is people who don’t have a lot of money, pretty much the only way you’re going to get out of that is if you get an education,” she says. She’d taken AP classes in high school and often held down two jobs — the one at Starbucks and another at a day care center — as she worked her way through college, studying early-childhood education and pediatric nutrition. She loved kids, but having one so young had not been part of the plan.

Yet there she was, in a bathroom in Andy’s house, staring at those two stark lines. It had been only a couple of months since that first visit to Kentucky, when he’d wooed her with mountain views and dinners out, and she had agreed to start dating him again. “I buried the pregnancy test under all the trash, freaked out, lost my mind for a bit in the bathroom, and then gathered myself up,” she says. After telling Andy that they were expecting, “I straight up was like, ‘I’m going to get an abortion. You gotta be cool with that. That’s gonna happen no matter what.’ ” The only two clinics in Kentucky that performed abortions had waitlists so long Allyson wasn’t sure she would make the cutoff, but she found a Planned Parenthood in Ohio that would take her in four weeks. By then, “He went from ‘I totally support your decision’ to ‘Well, we’ve got time, let’s just talk some options’ to ‘Hey, we would be a really great family, and we’re going to raise him this way and have a white picket fence and always love each other, and it’s going to be great.’ ”

And it worked: Allyson eventually came around to the idea of having a child. “Part of the reason why is that Andy and I talked and were like, ‘Well, we’re doing so much better than most people our age. We have savings. We own our house. We have two cars, we have college degrees. We live a good life.’ So it really did, at the time, seem like we had everything that we needed to be prepared and financially stable.” Plus, Allyson wanted to be a mom. She thought she’d make a good one. She had no way of knowing that from that exact moment, she’d begun her slow and steady descent into abject poverty.

struggling in america

Coming Up Short: Thirty-four percent of stay-at-home moms are living in poverty, more than double the number in 1970. “I wear shoes with holes in them, I’ve sold my dead grandmother’s jewelry, I’ve donated plasma, says Allyson. “I’ve gone without deodorant for a week, without tampons. When you have no income, those things become expensive.” Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

TAKE A LONG VIEW of the American economy right now, and it appears to be doing just fine. Unemployment is down, and household incomes are up — trends that have been mostly trucking along since the early days of Obama’s presidency when the country began its recovery from the Great Recession. But zoom in at the household level, and it’s a far more complicated, and often bleaker, picture. In the Federal Reserve’s most recent annual Survey of Household Economics and Decision-making (SHED), more than one-fifth of adults are behind on their bills, more than one-fourth skipped necessary medical care in 2017 because they were unable to pay for it, and four out of 10 responded that if they needed to come up with $400 unexpectedly, they would only be able to do so by selling something or borrowing the money. Which means that millions of American families are only one unexpected event away from financial catastrophe. One blown transmission. One broken leg. One positive pregnancy test.

Allyson’s particular catastrophe rolled out in stages. After moving to Kentucky, she continued her education with online classes from the University of Central Florida and had gotten Starbucks to transfer her job to a local shop, but she was making less there than she had been in Orlando. As her due date approached and she looked into the cost of the two day cares in the small town where she worked, she realized how little sense it would make to pay that price. “I had stressed a lot that I wanted to keep working, even after the baby was born,” she says. “When we first decided, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this,’ I was like, ‘I still want my independence, I want my own money.’ But as time went on, we decided that it just wasn’t worth it with child care costs.” Andy made $12-$13 an hour working full-time in the book-printing department of Amazon, while Allyson made about $8.50 an hour working 25 to 30 hours a week. Between the two of them, they earned too much money to qualify for subsidized child care, which meant that almost all of Allyson’s income would have gone toward paying someone else to be with her child. “When we did the math, I would have been taking home $50 a week, or something ridiculous.”

But the decision to stay home was financially fraught, too. According to Lily Batchelder, the Obama administration’s deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, “Child care is a huge reason why people fall into poverty.” The latest Pew Research Center analysis of such trends found that, after decades of decline, the proportion of stay-at-home mothers rose from 23 percent in 1999 to 29 percent in 2012. More pointedly, a growing share (six percent in 2012 versus one percent in 2000) reported they were not home voluntarily, but rather because they could not find a job, or at least one that could cover child care. Thirty-four percent of stay-at-home mothers (versus 12 percent of working ones) are living in poverty. That’s more than double the number who were living in poverty in 1970.

In fact, according to Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, child care is one of a handful of factors that, taken together, have made middle-class life roughly 30 percent more expensive than it used to be. “It has nothing to do with inflation,” Quart says. “I mean, food is actually not that much more. It’s rent. It’s real estate. It’s day care. It’s education.” In other words, it’s the quality-of-life markers that define our conception of what it means to be in the middle class. Or, at least, what it meant to be middle class for the bulk of the 20th century when, for a unique moment in history, income gaps narrowed and the middle class as we know it was born. “Middle class has gone from being a stable category that was almost too stable, like a prison that people once tried to escape in the Sixties, to something that people can’t even get in to,” says Quart. “You have the man in the gray flannel suit and all these mythos around the commuter train and the humdrum stable life of two cars and a house and a pension. And now you’d be lucky to have any of those. You’d be lucky to be humdrum.”

Yet it has stuck with us, this humdrum idea of what could or should be possible. A 2017 study by Northwestern Mutual found that 70 percent of Americans consider themselves to be middle class, though only 50 percent actually are. According to the Pew Research Center, which defines the American middle class as those earning two-thirds to twice the median household income (or between about $52,200 and $156,500 for a family of four in 2016), the number of people in that group has been consistently on the decline since the Eighties. Increasingly, people find themselves in the working class or, more specifically, a member of the working poor — those living in poverty even though they are working. Meanwhile, our government’s idea of what constitutes poverty — $25,100 a year for a family of four — is calculated using an outdated model that was developed in the Sixties (before having a cellphone, for instance, was necessary for gaining employment). However you do the math, none of those middle-class markers — owning a home, having good medical care, sending your kids to college — are as attainable as they once were, which, according to Quart, explains why so many who aspire to the middle class are “living really unstable lives” while being “often only one generation away from a working-class parent that was more stable than they are.”

The numbers make it easy to see why. In 1960, the annual average health care costs in America were just $146 per person; in 2016, that figure had risen to $10,348. Over the past few decades, the cost of attending a four-year public college has risen more than 200 percent, which helps explain why Americans now have $1.4 trillion of student-loan debt. The median home value also rose dramatically, from around $3,000 in 1940 (or around $30,000 in inflation-adjusted terms) to more than $200,000 today. And for those who can’t afford to own, renting is problematic as well: A 2017 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition determined that there is now literally nowhere in America where a minimum-wage worker can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Meanwhile, as costs have risen, the relative amount of money that many American workers earn has gone down. From the early Seventies until 2017, productivity (the amount of goods and services created in an hour of work) has grown by almost 77 percent, but the inflation-adjusted amount workers are paid for that productivity has only grown by about 12 percent (by way of comparison, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, compensation rose by about 90 percent). Increased productivity expands the economy, driving certain prices up, which means that the cost of living has been rising faster than incomes for more than 40 years. “That’s kind of all you need to know,” says Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s not so much that people are worse off as much as that they haven’t kept up.”

Though certainly, they’ve tried. Much of the (paltry) growth in household income over the past 40 years has occurred because — often out of necessity — people are simply working more. What Bernstein has seen is that “families have had to work harder, work longer hours, spend more time in the job market, send more people to work in order to keep from falling behind.” At least there are more people to send: It is a cruel twist of fate that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened employment avenues to minorities and women less than a decade before the solid, middle-class jobs they could finally attain started to become less solid and middle class. Those new workers helped expand productivity but brought home less pay — as, of course, they still do — than their white, male counterparts. “Comparing factors such as incomes, the black middle class was always weaker than the white middle class,” says economist Steven Pitts, associate chair at the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “A newly hired black worker would probably say, ‘Yes, my job at U.S. Steel pays more than my sharecropping job did, but because I’m black, I’m stuck in a job that’s shitty as hell and can’t advance to a better one.’ ”

As for women, it’s not as if they all entered the job force from lives of leisure, and it’s not as if the work they did before disappeared. Since two incomes are now basically required for attaining a middle-class way of life, as Columbia University historian Alice Kessler-Harris explains in Women Have Always Worked, women are working outside the home while still doing 2.6 times more unpaid care and domestic work than men, according to a 2018 report from the United Nations. The amount of unpaid care work has been estimated to be worth about $3 trillion annually. Without it, America’s economy would grind to a halt.

ALLYSON’S SON, Atlas, was born in 2015, on an early-October afternoon that she describes as “literally perfect, sweater weather, when the grass is green and long and there’s sunflowers everywhere. I thought he was literally the most beautiful newborn I’d ever seen in my entire life.” He was a happy baby, and Allyson took to new motherhood with an ease that surprised her. While she was expecting, she’d connected with some friends on Facebook to bond over the difficulties of pregnancy, but after Atlas was born, “we kind of grew apart because they were going through a lot of things that I wasn’t. I didn’t have anything to contribute to those conversations. It was just so easy.”

What was becoming less easy, however, was her relationship with Andy. He worked nights and slept during the day, so she’d roam around the big, old house with only a newborn as company. “It was so lonely,” she says. “Honestly, we just weren’t compatible. I was unhappy, and he just wouldn’t talk about it at all.”

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“I was working 15 hours a week at minimum wage, and they cut my benefits,” says Allyson, who moved back in with her mother in Florida. Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Not working, she was also steadily making her way through the $9,000 she’d had from her Starbucks savings and from selling her furniture when she moved to Kentucky. By the time she and Andy called it quits and she bought a one-way ticket back to Florida, she was down to basically nothing. “I had a 10-month-old, one suitcase worth of stuff, $70, two packs of diapers and a week’s worth of wipes.”

Though she’d been helping pay the property taxes, the house belonged to Andy, purchased a few years back with money from a scooter-accident settlement (the type of “lucky break” that may now be someone’s best chance at financial gain). The cars belonged to him too. He had offered to go with her to the child-support office in Kentucky, but the breakup was contentious enough that Allyson just wanted to get away. She figured it could all get sorted out later, not realizing how much harder the process would be once she crossed state lines. (Andy declined to comment for this article.)

Back in Orlando, she moved in with a friend of a friend who had a spare room she could rent for almost nothing, applied for child support, and found that she qualified for the maximum amount of assistance that Florida allowed (about $350 a month), which she figured would tide her over until she could secure subsidized child care and find a job. When she went to apply for that subsidized child care, however, she learned that before you could even qualify, the state required two consecutive pay stubs to prove you worked at least 20 hours a week. Which meant that in order to work, she needed child care, but in order to get child care, she needed to work. Essentially, she was screwed.

So are many others. “As much as we talk about motherhood and fatherhood and apple pie and all that stuff, it’s just a system that is so rigged against parents and the values that we hold as a country that the adults be self-supporting, that the children be given the best early beginnings,” says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “In a sense, your ZIP code is destiny. And each state, depending on its economic health and the values of its governing bodies, supports child care to a greater or lesser degree. I could live literally across the block from someone in a different state and have a completely different system” — a bureaucratic morass that owes its complexity in part to the conflicting societal belief that, as Galinsky puts it, “we should make people who take welfare work, but good mothers will be at home.”

Desperately, Allyson tried to figure out how to do both. When her stepmother agreed to watch Atlas in the evenings after she got home from her own job, Allyson approached Starbucks about picking up some evening shifts and was hired again. But with her child care constraints and the limited shifts they could give her (“Two of the girls I most often worked with also had kids and could only work evenings on very specific days,” she says), it was clear that she would not be able to work the 20 hours a week needed to get the child care subsidy.

Allyson had been precariously employed before, with no set schedule and no guaranteed number of hours per week. But she’d never been so underemployed, working far less than she wanted or needed to be, and she’d never before had a dependent. The much-publicized benefits Starbucks offered — health insurance for employees who work an average of 20 hours a week or more, tuition assistance, fertility services, paying more than the minimum wage — suddenly paled in comparison to how little every hour’s worth of work actually got her: 50 cents more than minimum wage when she’d started and a raise of 21 cents an hour every year after that. Even working full-time, she would have been making “nothing close to a living wage,” she says. And yet she kept returning to Starbucks for a reason: The chain was widely considered a generous employer.

In fact, minimum wage has fallen so woefully behind the cost of living that more than 12 million American workers now also rely on public assistance to make ends meet — a state of affairs that Bernie Sanders has publicly decried as a way in which taxpayer dollars subsidize rich corporations. “Minimum wage is now more than 25 percent below what it was in 1968, so that is pretty dramatically sick,” says Lawrence Mishel, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank. And the minimum wage sets the parameters for so many hourly jobs, meaning that a large portion of the country’s take-home pay is being depressed far below a reasonable cost of living. “The defining characteristic of the last four decades has been wage stagnation, but I would call it wage suppression,” adds Mishel. “The fact that most people didn’t see much of a rise of their wages and benefits is not because the money wasn’t there because the economy was somehow in trouble. There was lots of income and wealth produced. It didn’t get to most people. Then, you have to ask the question ‘Why didn’t it?’ ”

Standard operating procedure is to point to automation, globalization and the inevitable, immutable changes of time as certain industries die out and are replaced by others. “But we’ve had automation for many, many decades,” says Mishel, “and for many of those decades we saw falling inequality, we saw rising wages for middle-class workers. Globalization may have something to do with this, but it’s not so clear to me that globalization and the way we did it was ordained by any deity.” Certainly, the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has had an effect, since service work — scrubbing toilets, flipping burgers, running day cares rather than doing something that produces a tangible product — is somehow viewed as “lesser” and therefore commands a lower rate. But all of these explanations would make more sense if the economy overall were suffering. It isn’t. Only its workers are.

And that’s happened, not because of economic forces beyond our control, but rather because government and corporate choices have been made that prioritize the wealth of a few people over the welfare of the many. The perverse incentives of tying executive pay to the price of stock have transformed the American worker from a stakeholder into merely an expenditure, from someone whose cultivation and training benefit the company into a mere line item for the next quarter. “Something like 80 percent of officers admit that they would forgo an investment in their company that has long-term benefits if it meant missing that quarter’s earnings,” says Rick Wartzman, author of The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “It’s disturbing stuff. And the effects are just profound.”

In the 1970s, S&P 500 companies typically used half of their profits to pay shareholders and the other half to reinvest in the company, through research and development or worker compensation and training. “Over the past 10 years,” Wartzman continues, “94 percent of profits for the S&P 500 have gone to benefit shareholders,” either directly or through stock buybacks, in which companies use their profits to buy their own stock, driving up its value — a practice that was outlawed until 1982 because it was believed to be a form of market manipulation. Based on tallies of the first three quarters, J.P. Morgan projects that S&P 500 companies will spend $800 billion on buybacks in 2018 — the highest number on record.

Such transformations of the way business is done have spawned the gig economy (gig workers might need a safety net, but aren’t legally entitled to one), undercut unions (11 percent of private workers were unionized in 2017 compared with 20 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and led to the development of algorithms that can adjust workers’ hours in real time based on volume of business (great for a company that doesn’t want to pay people when there’s a lag in customers, but disastrous for workers like Allyson who need to plan for child care). When American Airlines announced in 2017 that it was raising its wages, its share price plummeted — rather than see this as a sign of the company’s health, the market saw it as a liability.

And in this American market, it is. As Jacob Hacker, Yale political scientist and author of The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream, explains, “The transfer of risk and responsibility from the broad shoulders of government and corporations onto the fragile backs of American workers and their families” has been one of the defining factors of the past few generations. Job security is a thing of the past. Between 2003 and 2013, the cost of employer-provided health insurance rose by 73 percent, 93 percent of which was passed on to workers, even as deductibles more than doubled. And rather than a guaranteed pension, workers are now offered a riskier 401(k) that draws from their wages. Which means that even families who are doing OK feel like they aren’t. “The poor are, of course, the most disadvantaged,” says Hacker. “But the real transformation is the degree to which the constraints and risks that were once faced only by the working poor are being faced by people with once-thought solidly middle-class incomes.”

In fact, as economists Jonathan Murdoch and Rachel Schneider point out in The Financial Diaries, “The instability of families’ incomes has risen faster than the inequality of families’ incomes.” Almost 60 percent of American workers are now hourly rather than salaried. And, in 2015, the Pew Charitable Trust found that almost 50 percent of households saw their income rise or fall by 25 percent or more from one year to the next. These ups and downs could be weathered if Americans weren’t already living so close to the bone — squeezed by factors such as the high cost of child care and their own low wages — but as Schneider says, “Volatility requires a cushion, [and] so many people don’t have a cushion because they really need their full income just to cover the basic cost of living.” In fact, in 2017, 39 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 saved, which means that gains in the market are largely not going to the middle class. Put more starkly: The top 10 percent of households own 84 percent of the country’s stocks — and this includes all stocks in retirement accounts.

Unfortunately, the government has not only enabled these changes, they’ve also enshrined them in policy. In addition to a miserly minimum wage, there are weaker unemployment benefits, more draconian rules about overtime, and a deterioration in labor standards like sick leave or family leave. And many welfare benefits are contingent on working a certain number of hours, as if this were under an employee’s control — meaning that people, like Allyson, who are underemployed are also at risk of losing whatever governmental help they may be receiving. “At this point, it’s kind of hard to deny that American political elites, and particularly Republican political elites, basically don’t believe there is any problem that can’t be addressed by cutting taxes and telling people that they should take more responsibility,” says Hacker.

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Her work at Starbucks meant she made too much money for adequate help from social services but not enough to pay the bills. “How does that even make sense?” she asks. Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Yet when Allyson took responsibility and called social services to tell them that she’d found work, she learned exactly what working would mean: She had landed in the benefit gap, where the social services lost by having a job are not sufficiently met by wages. “They told me immediately that I lost my Medicaid” — a bureaucratic error, actually, that took her months to figure out. “And they also cut my food stamps from $357 to $172 or something like that,” Allyson says. “Which was really significant. I was shocked. ‘But what do you mean? I just started. I’m working, like, 15 hours a week at basically minimum wage. How does that even make sense?’ And they were just like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. After taxes, you should be making $503 a month.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah? And?’ ” It was the first time Allyson realized how little she’d really have to live on. “I was crushed,” she says. Between that, bus fare to and from work, and the cost of prescription medicine she needed, “I was actually losing money at that point by working. It just was not . . . sustainable at all.”

“WHERE’S YOUR NOSE?” asks Allyson. “Where’s your chin? Your knees? No, no, those are toes. Toes are cool too, but they’re not knees.” It’s bath time for Atlas, who is chubby and smiley and now almost two — an age at which it is very hard to understand why one cannot eat pink foam soap. “Don’t eat it! If you eat it, bath time is over,” warns Allyson as Atlas smears the soap all through his blond curls and giggles uncontrollably.

Allyson laughs too. She’s into attachment parenting (“all the peer-reviewed, high-quality research says that it just creates better people”) and approaches motherhood with admirable patience and humor.

It’s a sweet, homey scene — a mother bathing her child, getting him ready for bed — but the small room where Allyson and Atlas will be living is bare of furniture, apart from the Pack ’n Play where Atlas sleeps. A few suitcases and plastic hampers scattered about contain the bulk of her possessions. After months of crashing with a friend, tonight is the first night she will spend in her mother’s small St. Petersburg apartment since officially moving in.

Back in Orlando, she hadn’t been making enough at Starbucks to cover both her health care costs and her reduced welfare benefits, so it soon became clear that she would need to put $200 to $300 on credit cards every month just to get by, while the student loans she couldn’t pay ballooned from $18,000 to $22,000. When her cheap housing fell through, she knew her financial situation made it impossible to even look for another rental, but leaving Orlando for her hometown of St. Pete meant leaving her stepmother — who didn’t have an extra room to offer her — and the free child care she had provided. More specifically, it meant giving up on any illusion she might have kept that she’d be able to pull ahead by working; in St. Pete, she knew she’d be living in poverty. Meanwhile, her application for child support and her application to have her welfare payments reinstated to their original amount — a change that she felt should have been as instantaneous as when the payments were reduced — both inched their way through the system.

Americans tend to view poverty as monolithic — the intractable state of a certain doomed set of people. But, in fact, according to U.S. Census data from 2011, roughly 25 percent of Americans experienced some poverty (two months or more) during that year, yet only 8.3 percent were poor the whole time. Indeed, the line between the lower-middle class and those living in poverty can be incredibly porous, and is growing even more so as the middle class becomes increasingly fragile. Which means that the monstrous bureaucratic hassle of the benefits system can keep people in poverty longer than they actually need to be. “It makes sense if you’re going to be on the same benefit for a long time,” explains Schneider. “But it’s a very significant mismatch when half of the people who experience poverty don’t experience it for very long.”

Not that government assistance, as it’s currently administered, offers much of a leg up anyway. Bill Clinton’s welfare reform of the Nineties — when work requirements were affixed to many forms of cash assistance — was meant to incentivize work, doing away with Ronald Reagan’s supposed “welfare queens.” Yet that assumed work to be the antidote to poverty when, for many, it isn’t. More than half of the nondisabled working-age adults living in poverty are actually employed. According to analyses done by sociologist and poverty expert Kathy Edin and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins, the only difference “welfare to work” has made for poor women was where they spent their time: Before welfare reform, they were home with their kids; after it, they were more likely to be in the workforce. Their economic situations remained unchanged because so much of the money they earned went to child care.

Nevertheless, since Trump took office, a top priority has been the rolling back of the safety net; the projected deficits caused by corporate tax breaks presumably justify raiding the welfare state. This past January, when the federal government told states that they could require Medicaid recipients to work, 12 states applied to do so, putting millions of people’s Medicaid at risk. Trump’s plan to restructure the federal agencies that oversee social policy may have seemed banal — a cleaning of house to go hand in hand with the purported draining of the swamp — but it was actually an attempt to enable cutbacks, shifting programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which already has work requirements, from the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture to that of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a “welfare” department. The farm bill passed by the House in June would make work requirements for SNAP even more stringent.

Still, Allyson wanted to be employed. Working made her feel productive and capable. “This sounds kind of crappy to say because I’m a bleeding-heart liberal and I think we should have way more government-assistance programs, but I would never want to be the kind of person who’s living off the government when I had the option not to,” she says. She was struck not only by the cruelty of the system, but also by its illogic. “I mean, obviously, there have to be some regulations. I get that. You can’t just hand a hot commodity out to everyone for free. But I just feel like the people who don’t have [consecutive] pay stubs are probably the people who need to go back to work the most. And to be in such a desperate position, and to just want so badly to go back to work?” She finds herself at a loss for words.

For the moment, it’s quiet in her mom’s tiny first-floor apartment. Atlas naps in his Pack ’n Play, and Allyson leads me out to the small screened-in porch, where the Florida air is thick and pungent. Storm clouds are gathering. She lowers herself into a lawn chair and sighs. Though she’s long lost the baby weight, Allyson still wears her maternity jeans with their elasticized waistband. She can’t remember the last time she bought something new for herself.

“He has never gone without, and he wouldn’t,” she says, as if making this statement true by force of sheer will. “But I have gone without for him. I wear shoes with holes in them, I’ve sold my dead grandmother’s jewelry, I’ve donated plasma. I’ve gone without deodorant for a week, without tampons for months. When you have no income, those things become expensive. A $3 box of tampons is a lot when it means that, if you spend that $3 and your kid gets a diaper rash next week, you might not get to buy -diaper-rash cream. So you just don’t.”

To the extent that they can, her mother and father have tried to help her, but money is tight all around. At present, Allyson is just grateful to have a free place to stay. She once thought she’d be able to leapfrog her parents in the American-class hierarchy, but now she envies their relative stability, the jobs they go to with consistency, the money they can count on every month. “I just knew,” she says, “there was no way that I was going to get out of this situation unless I pretty much won the lottery.”

In the end, it wasn’t the lottery that gave Allyson another chance; it was Child Protective Services, which showed up after she’d posted to an online forum called “Breaking Mom,” venting about the trials of raising a willful almost-two-year-old. “I joked that I was going to drop him off at the fire station,” she says. “It was so obviously a joke.” But someone — it isn’t clear who — took the opportunity to call CPS, which then was required to investigate. “I really thought I was having a heart attack,” Allyson says of that day. “I’ve never been that hysterical in my whole life. But basically, the caseworker said that he knew the call was malicious, Atlas was healthy and happy, and he was going to close the case immediately.”

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Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Photograph by Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

Still, the caseworker probed into Allyson’s life enough to learn of her financial situation — and he saw a way out. “He explained to me that, even though he was closing my case that day, it actually takes 30 days to process and close fully, no matter what. During that time, your kid is considered at-risk, and when your child is considered at-risk, they want to do everything they can to fast-track them and you into a better situation.” This meant being able to bypass the pay-stub requirement for subsidized child care. Thus one of the scariest things that ever happened to Allyson also turned out to be one of the best — a second chance to lift herself out of poverty.

All this conflicts with our national narrative about mobility, the story we tell ourselves about how to get ahead. If anything, Americans are optimists; we believe, despite so many signs to the contrary, that we control our own fates, that if we just work hard enough and long enough, things will turn out all right. The bootstrapper fairy tale is a nice one, but it obfuscates the truth: that the deck is currently stacked against the American worker.

Allyson knows that there are things she could have done differently. She could have ignored Andy’s messages. She could have gotten that abortion. But what haunts her now is all she did right, all the working and saving and studying and striving, all the times she was responsible. “I’m not a naive person,” she says. “Before I decided to keep Atlas, I ran through, in my head, a million and one ways that this could have gone. I knew there was a chance that Andy and I would break up. But I thought, no matter what, I will not be in this alone. I was more sure about that than I’ve ever been about anything in my whole life.”

Now, she’s not very sure of anything. “I thought you went to school, you got a job, and there you are — you built a life. That’s not how it works at all. That was hard to realize.” Also hard is the realization that her associate’s degree “might as well be a GED,” and the complicated way her experience makes her feel about being a parent. “I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “Atlas is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But if I had thought that I was ever going to end up in this position, I wouldn’t have had a child. If I had known then what I know now? Absolutely not.”

What’s worn on her is not the day-to-day — where she can find simple joys — but the accumulation of days, the minutiae that becomes catastrophic (as when Atlas threw a shoe from the only pair he owned out of his stroller and Allyson couldn’t find it), the way this builds up to months and years of small catastrophes. According to Gallup, 31 percent of Americans living in poverty say that they have suffered from depression, compared with 15.8 percent of those who aren’t impoverished.

By far the hardest part of living in poverty for Allyson has been the way the psychology of it has bled into her experience of parenting. She can’t help but think back to those early-childhood classes about how crucially important these first few years are. She worries that Atlas is getting old enough to know that they’re struggling. “It’s a disconnect: I am stressed out because I want to do what’s best for him, but because I’m so stressed out, I’m not present for him. Like, I barely remember a lot of him in the past year. I spent almost every minute of every day with him, but I barely remember most of those times,” she says, her voice breaking as she fights back sobs. “I just really hope that I have all of this figured out for him before he notices. I don’t want to miss too much more.”

Maybe she won’t have to. In a few days, and with Atlas’ subsidized day care finally in place, Allyson will begin yet another stint with Starbucks. It’s still a precarious situation: She’ll need to take five different buses to drop off Atlas and then get to work on time, a herculean act of coordination vulnerable to one late bus. If she misses work or Atlas misses day care, her subsidy is at risk. But still, in today’s America, she knows this is her best shot, her current form of the American dream. For now, she’ll cling to it.

In This Article: Economy, long reads, middle class, Poverty


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