Being on the autism spectrum often has more drawbacks than benefits, but for Julie, 39, who asked that her name not be used, the heightened ability to focus on something specific that often goes along with the condition has been a good thing for her and her family.
“I just love numbers,” she said. “They’re my thing.”
That skill, along with an associate degree in accounting and the experience of having grown up poor, have allowed her to keep her family of four’s budget afloat despite a poverty-level annual income of around $22,000.
Although the family is eligible for Medicaid, they do not collect SNAP benefits and don’t qualify for subsidized housing. Because her two children have autism as well, and need the one-on-one services that are only offered at high-performing schools, Julie lives in a section of Roanoke County that has homes valued at more than a million dollars mixed in with more modest rentals like hers. Their house has expensive electric baseboard heat, but Julie knows how to keep the bill down and she shops carefully for food.
In April, Julie said, she and her husband got nearly half of their earnings back when they filed their income tax return.
“We don’t own anything,” she said, aside from a old car, “so we get all of the deductions.”
She used the money to pay her bills in advance, accounting for what she would need during the summer, when she would take off from her job waiting tables for a planned surgery in June. With the money that was left over, she and her oldest child went on a short trip.
“It was the first vacation we ever took,” she said.
Unfortunately, the surgery didn’t go well, and although Julie was covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and couldn’t be fired from her job for 12 weeks, she knew she would be unable to return to work until the first surgery was healed and before she had a second planned surgery later in the year.
In July, while she was still recovering, she received a cut-off notice for her electric service, and was horrified when she realized she hadn’t actually paid the bill.
“I can’t believe I did that,” she said. Had she known, she said, she would have never gone on vacation. “I figured we could do it. I paid the bills and we had food in the house.”
By that time, money was tight, and Julie was behind on the rent as well. Her husband, a stay-at-home parent, didn’t have any income, either.
Three years ago, Julie had another brush with unpaid bills, she said, and someone recommended that she go to Roanoke Area Ministries and apply for help from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by The Roanoke Times’ Good Neighbors Fund. She didn’t go then, she said, but this time she did, and she followed the instructions for aid to the letter.
Julie received a grant toward the bill, but was pleased that the charity requires beneficiaries to pay part of the debt themselves. “You have to prove to them that you can pay the remaining amount,” she said.
The assistance she got “helped a lot,” Julie said. Because she avoided having her power cut off, she can negotiate her payments to coincide with her husband’s paychecks and wasn’t stuck with expensive reconnection fees or with having to pay a new deposit.
Julie is not sure when she will be able to return to work, but when she’s ready, she said, her employer will gladly take her back. Her husband, who is a car mechanic, found a job which, along with her careful management, will keep them debt-free for the near future. Before Medicaid eligibility was expanded in Virginia, she said, the higher income her husband is making now would have thrown them off of the program. Luckily, she said, they still qualify for care for both themselves and their children.
In the meantime, Julie has secured loans to go back to college. She’d like to earn a doctorate in psychology so she can study the autism that has affected her and her family. Living with two children with the condition is hard at first when you’re looking for answers and resources, she said, but “you get used to it,” and the community has been good to them. A local charity donated the iPads the children use to communicate and to bring them out of themselves, she said.
Julie said she’d like people to know “I’m a good person,” despite stereotypes they may have about the poor. Because their friends and family are often financially strapped as well, for years she has helped her husband work on their cars for free, only asking for gas money to get back and forth from the job. The Great Recession “was painful,” she said. “Nobody had any money,” and they needed their cars to find work. “We pay it forward,” she said.