James DeVolid, 54, put in so many hours between his two jobs at Tyson Foods and Walmart that his wife, Susan, often joked that he worked “eight days a week.”
But after DeVolid developed nerve damage, he had to quit last summer the janitorial position he’d held for 20 years at a Tyson Food distribution center in Pottsville, Arkansas. His job required cleaning freezers, and the cold temperatures exacerbated his ailment.
DeVolid kept his other job at Walmart, where he earns $10 an hour moving carts 32 hours a week. But the change cut his annual income from $40,000 to $20,000, and he had to give up the health insurance benefits provided at Tyson’s. He figured it would only take a few weeks for his coverage to kick in at Walmart.
But before it did, the husband and father of two suffered a severe heart attack, and had to undergo triple bypass surgery. Then there was a second surgery to drain the fluid surrounding his heart.
He took six weeks off work to recover and was paid half his wages. The family quickly drained their $5,000 savings, and racked up $8,000 in debt ― and more medical bills are on the way. He has no idea where he’ll find the money to cover the rest of the costs. “It’s been rough on the whole family,” DeVolid told HuffPost while on his lunch break at his Walmart job. “I wouldn’t wish this on nobody. It’s horrible.”
While DeVolid’s case is devastating, it’s hardly unusual.
Most Americans can’t afford even a minor emergency, according to a recent report from Bankrate, a website that provides financial advice. Of those surveyed, just 39 percent of respondents said they’d be able to cover an unexpected $1,000 bill with funds from their savings. Most of the other respondents said they would have no choice but to accrue debt ― by paying with a credit card, borrowing from family and friends, or getting a loan.
Medical bills are particularly foreboding. In 2016, medical expenses were the largest contributor to increasing the number of individuals living in poverty, according to a Census Bureau report. That year, 10.5 million people fell below the poverty line due to medical bills.
“Medical expenses have long been a common path into financial ruin for Americans,” Ann Huff Stevens, deputy director of the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis, told HuffPost. “Without health insurance, it is very easy to get into levels of debt that are impossible to recover from.”
Struggling Americans may actually be able to afford far less than the Bankrate report suggests. According to a Federal Reserve report released last year, 44 percent of adults wouldn’t be able to afford an unexpected $400 emergency expense. They’d either borrow the money or sell something to cover the bill. That figure is on the decline, though. It’s dropped from 50 percent since 2013.
To better protect against such unpredictable financial situations, Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial officer, recommends that everyone set aside some funds each month in a savings account, with the goal of having enough to cover three-to-six months’ worth of expenses.
But for people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, allocating such a substantial amount of funds each month often isn’t possible.
“It’s no shock that a very large percentage of Americans can’t cover an unexpected emergency expense, but the advice Bankrate offers ― ‘Be sure you save every month!’ ― smacks of ‘Let them eat cake,’” Keith Taylor, president of New York-based nonprofit Modest Needs Foundation, told HuffPost. “When you’re earning $2,400 a month, and your basic bills cost $2,285, what exactly is the person supposed to do? Put that extra $115 in the bank and have absolutely zero cash? Absurd.”
The foundation sets up fundraisers for families who face sudden crises and are in need of short-term financial assistance. The organization vets each case and pays money directly to the service provider, whether that be a hospital or an energy company, for example.
Since launching the nonprofit in 2002, Taylor said not much has changed in terms of the amount of money his clients need. But what has changed is why people need that help. When he first started out, the majority of the requests focused on housing payments. Now it’s medical bills.
Modest Needs hopes to collect about $1,300 for the DeVolids, which would cover two bills from Arkansas Hospital. The fundraiser won’t eliminate their debt, but it’s a start. The DeVolids never envisioned themselves needing handouts, and only solicited help from Modest Needs after exhausting their other options.
“You can save, but there’s no way we would’ve been able to save for something like this ― even with two jobs,” said his wife Susan, who works in the accounts payable department at an Internet company and earns around $50,000 a year. “You just can’t when you have a family to support.”
After his heart attack, the family purchased health insurance through COBRA, so that DeVolid would continue to be covered under his Tyson Foods health plan. While that plan did cover a significant portion of the original hospital bill, they were still left with more bills than they could afford. They’ve set up a plan with the hospital to pay off $300 a month, and he now has insurance through Walmart. But there are still additional procedures and doctor visits to pay for, and about $400 a month in medications.
They’ve been scraping together funds to cover the bills. A friend loaned them $100. The family sold one of their vehicles, and they are talking about selling their second car, but that would create problems for Susan, who drives an hour each way to Little Rock for work every day. Her primary goal right now is to stay on top of their monthly mortgage payments so they don’t lose their home.
DeVolid applied for a program for people who have accumulated medical bills that are beyond their means, Medicaid Step Down, but says he was denied because his bills weren’t high enough to qualify and he has since returned to work.
“There’s no light at the end of this. It’s discouraging,” Susan DeVolid said. “You’re working so hard. And then, you get hit with something. We have nothing now.”