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Derby resident Kathleen Patrick on why she can't afford to work full-time

A woman with long red hair and glasses smiling into the camera
Kytreana Patrick
Kathleen Patrick lives in Derby in a subsidized apartment with two cats, two pugs, and many, many clocks.

"What class are you?" It's a question that Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman has been asking people for a series about class and cultural divides that we are publishing all week. In this first installment, Erica speaks with Kathleen Patrick of Derby.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

Kathleen: "You know, I consider doctors, lawyers, you know, people who have a good income, upper class. If you can afford every year to go on a two-week ski vacation, or you can have someone come clean your house or your pool, that's upper class."

Erica: "What is your experience of upper class?"

Kathleen: "None. I mean, I've seen it on TV."

That's Kathleen Patrick. She lives in Derby, Vermont in a subsidized apartment with two cats, two pugs, and about 400 clocks. She really likes clocks. Kathleen was working as a home health aide until COVID hit. She received COVID funding and rent assistance until she didn't. And now she's working at the deli at Price Chopper. And she's months behind on her rent. And she's facing eviction.

I met Kathleen through her daughter Kytreana, who I interviewed for this class series last year.

Kytreana has been couch surfing for the better part of two years. And for the last eight months or so, she's been sleeping on her mother's couch while she's working to save money for her own place, and also trying to help her mother with her expenses.

More from Vermont Public: Kytreana Patrick on growing up working class in the NEK and taking what 'mental vacations' you can get

It turns out that being poor is a learning curve. And it takes a lot of time. Most any benefit, from housing subsidies to health care, requires a whole lot of complicated paperwork. Kathleen has subsidized housing and health care, and she receives food assistance. But she says that if she gets a job that makes $1 more than the subsidies allow, she says she'll be poorer than she was before she needed subsidies. It's complicated.

Here's Kathleen.

Kathleen: "I don't fit into a class, I'm not lower class, because I have a place. And most of the time I can afford my bills. I'm not middle class, because again, only some of the times I can afford my bills. And I'm far from upper class. I mean, I have my own apartment, and I work a job and a lot of people would consider me middle class.

"But I can't afford to be middle class. I want to work, you know, I want to be able to pay my bills. But I cannot look for a full-time job. Even if one was given to me, I can't accept it. Because if I accept a full-time job, I lose my food stamps, I lose my housing assistance. Without my Medicaid… I am on almost 20 different medications. Some of them cost a couple thousand for a month.

More from Brave Little State: Vermonters On The Edge Of The Benefits Cliff

"If I work full-time, then I have to accept work health care, which I would not be able to afford the payments that would go with the medication and the doctor's visits. So I have to stay below a certain level, or else I can't live."

A woman smiling and holding two pug dogs
Kytreana Patrick
Kathleen with her pugs. She says if she were to start working full-time, she'd lose the benefits that allow her to afford her medication.

Erica: "What are you afraid of? When you look ahead?"

Kathleen: "I'm facing eviction, because I'm behind in my rent. And what scares me the most is being evicted. Because I have no funds to seek out another place.

"Lower class, you want to do better. You want people to see you as better. But when I have to tell people, ‘Yeah, I have a regular job, but here's my food stamp card…’ and they look at me, ‘You're working? Why do you need food stamps?’ I need food stamps because my job does not pay enough for me to afford my apartment and food and health care. It doesn't pay enough. And they'll say, ‘Well, get a better job.’ If I get a better job, I lose the assistance, and then I can't afford anything anyway.

"If I work full-time, then I have to accept work health care, which I would not be able to afford the payments that would go with the medication and the doctor's visits. So I have to stay below a certain level, or else I can't live."
Kathleen Patrick, Derby resident

"It's like being on a merry-go-round or a roller coaster. A roller coaster is better. You get up to that high point on the hill, you're doing great! And then bam, you get divorced. And you're going downhill. And you can't stop the downhill slide. You can't stop the loops where you're going through one thing after another, housing, food. And then you finally get through them and you're going up again. You're feeling great. Then bam, something else happens. Like I had to have a surgery, you know, which I hadn't expected. And there weren't any funds that I had. I had to take time off from work, so I lost that income. I needed more financial programs. And again, it's downhill, more paperwork.

"I look 10 years down the road and I see myself still stuck here. I don't see that happy ending, that house, that wonderful new husband, that picket fence, that nine-to-five job in the office that I can be proud of. I don't see it anymore. I'm 53 years old, and I'm stuck in a system that is determined not to help me get out of the system."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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