Cook column: Dear Mr. President: Where to begin?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 5, 2009

Wilma might have watched President Barack Obama’s speech on TV last week, but her cable has been disconnected.
“That was the first thing they cut off,” she says.
As the minutes are running out on her temporary cell phone, she tells me she wrote to the president a few months ago, describing how she and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, were struggling to get by. Living on Social Security, they have fallen behind on their bills ó about $1,500 to $1,800 behind.
As a candidate, Obama talked about coming from a poor family and understanding what it means to be in need.
“So I thought, ‘He’s the president now; maybe they’ll help me.’ ”
She received a letter from the White House in response, signed by a Michael Keller, special assistant to the president and director of correspondence. The president appreciated the contact, he said. He told her which agencies should be able to help and invited her to write back again later.
The president receives tens of thousands of letters, e-mail and faxes daily. Each day he reads 10, according to, “to stay in tune with America’s issues and concerns.”
His mind must be reeling by now. As Obama focuses on Afghanistan and health-care reform, critics complain that he is not doing enough about jobs and the economy.
It’s hard to categorize Wilma’s problem ó the family of a veteran that has fallen on hard times because of health problems during a recession. Her story shows how issues are interwoven.
I’m not identifying Wilma’s family ó too many people on the Internet like to kick people when they’re down ó but a lot of people might identify with her worries.
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Wilma always thought of her family as middle class.
Her husband worked as a prison guard and then a security guard until he broke his back and went on disability in 1987.
She worked at Cannon Mills until the mill closed, then at other jobs ó working the cash register at a gas station, being a nursing assistant at a retirement center.
They raised four sons and got by.
Age and illness changed everything. Her husband, now 65, has Parkinson’s Disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. In 2008, he was in intensive care at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center for 18 days for heart bypass surgery.
She stopped working. She couldn’t take the time off she needed to care for him, she says.
This year he was back in the hospital after suffering a series of strokes.
He’s also been hospitalized at the Hefner VA Medical Center several times. Due to the diabetes, he has ulcers on his feet. He gets around in a motorized chair or with a walker.
Buying gasoline to drive back and forth to the hospital took its toll on their finances. Bit by bit they started falling behind. They had their home of 38 years paid for, she says, but now are making house payments again. She pays that bill first.
Then there’s the car payment and insurance. The electricity was nearly cut off.
They applied for and received food stamps for the first time ó $31 for the two of them for a month. The small amount surprised her, and the rules are scary. No one else in the family can eat the food, or they’ll be violating federal law.
With 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, people are in and out of the house all the time. A granddaughter and great-grandchild live with Wilma and her husband. She might send the stamps back.
Two sons live in Texas, two here, and they help where they can. But everyone is struggling.
“We didn’t have Thanksgiving,” she says.
“We take two steps forward and 15 back,” she says. “If anyone is worse off than we are, I don’t know what they’re doing.”
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A lot of people are worse off, and the president probably hears from them, too. They’ve never had a house or a car, or they lost those things. Or they’re sicker or lonelier. And their debts are much larger.
But the situation Wilma and her husband find themselves in is bad, and she fears how quickly things could get worse.
“If my husband dies, I will lose everything I’ve worked for for 45 years,” she wrote in a letter to the Post. ” … I am 61 years old and never knew my life would come to this. …. I’m too old to be put on the street.”
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Illness can wipe someone out in the best of times. Wilma’s financial problems have arisen at the same time unemployment is 13-plus percent.
Rowan Helping Ministries gave them food, but it didn’t have much to share. “There were so many people there,” she says. “The lady apologized.”
Wilma got bruised after falling outside Main Street Mission in China Grove, which turned out to be closed. She tells people she got in a fight with a sidewalk and the sidewalk won.
Then, last week, she found a bright spot. She went to see Lou Adkins at Salisbury Community Development Corp., and Wilma left encouraged. The nonprofit agency works with 75 to 100 people a month to help them try to avoid foreclosure. Wilma thinks she may be able to get help figuring out her finances.
And one church gave her $50 after the pastor saw another turn her away. “I knock on a window and another door opens,” she says.
But she’s far from feeling secure yet, and she wonders if writing to the president again would do any good. She might be better off saving the cost of a stamp and knocking on more doors and windows.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.