Dev­as­tated by one shut­down and dread­ing the next

As Fri­day’s dead­line ap­proaches, a fed­eral worker over­whelmed the first time won­ders: ‘How am I sup­posed to dig out?’

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELI SASLOW PHO­TOS BY JABIN BOTSFORD IN FRESNO, CALIF.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment had fi­nally called her back to work af­ter 35 days, but now Vicki Ibarra won­dered how she could af­ford to get there. Her used sedan had been re­pos­sessed by the bank a few days ear­lier. The fam­ily mini­van had a faulty en­gine and barely any gas. Her In­ter­net had been cut off a month into the long­est gov­ern­ment shut­down in U.S. his­tory, so she used a friend’s wire­less pass­word to log into her bank ac­count. There was $0.38 left in check­ing and $7.80 in sav­ings, the sum to­tal of 16 years at the IRS.

“This is like dis­ap­pear­ing into quick­sand,” she said to her friend, Ernie Del­gado. “Even once I get back at work, how am I sup­posed to dig out?”

“You need to start ask­ing for help,” he said.

“Who?” she said. “How? That’s never been me.”

Ibarra, 45, had built her adult life on the prin­ci­ple of self-suf­fi­ciency — rais­ing two chil­dren by her­self, adopt­ing her teenage niece, de­vot­ing her ca­reer to a gov­ern­ment job be­cause it promised mean­ing­ful work and 9-to-5 de­pend­abil­ity. The salary was mod­est at about $35,000 a year, so she of­ten stayed late to work over­time. Even when her credit cards were maxed out, she’d been able to make at least the min­i­mum pay­ments. Even if she some­times needed an ex­ten­sion on her rent, she’d spent 25 years in the same two-bed­room house, where a small sign was posted on a bed­room wall: “Get up and go get it!”

That was the per­son she had been right up un­til the gov­ern­ment shut­down be­gan at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 22, forc­ing her to miss one pay­check and then an­other, leav­ing her with no in­come for the first time since she turned 18. Ibarra had been told once dur­ing an IRS train­ing that about 60 per­cent of Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers live pay­check to pay­check and that 40 per­cent are un­able to af­ford a $400 emer­gency. Her first emer­gency had been the missed car pay­ment, which forced her lease into de­fault be­cause she was al­ready be­hind. Next went her cable. Then came two un­paid

credit cards bills and a rent check that was al­most three weeks over­due.

She’d tried to fend off bill col­lec­tors by sell­ing some of her fur­ni­ture and ask­ing strangers for help in an on­line fundraiser. “I’ve al­ways been an in­de­pen­dent lady who never needed any help,” she’d writ­ten. “I don’t know what to do.”

The one thing she hadn’t done yet was ask for money from her friends or fam­ily mem­bers, sev­eral of whom had come to rely on her. She was still help­ing to sup­port her adult daugh­ter, who had a new baby. She of­ten cooked big meals and then de­liv­ered to-go pack­ages to her friends and sib­lings. “I’m tak­ing it from you at the IRS, so I might as well give some back,” she liked to tell them. Now she took out her phone and started writ­ing a text mes­sage to one of her old friends.

“You know I’m proud, so it kills me to ask you this,” she wrote, and then deleted it.

“This shut­down has me hurt­ing. Any way you can help?” she wrote, and deleted it again.

“Let’s catch up some­time!” she wrote fi­nally, be­fore hit­ting send.

She went into her bed­room to choose her out­fits for the up­com­ing week, lay­ing out pos­si­bil­i­ties on a blowup mat­tress. She’d sold her bed to a friend a month ear­lier, af­ter she heard Pres­i­dent Trump say the shut­down would last un­til Congress paid for a wall on the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, whether that took months or a year. Ibarra’s own fi­nan­cial mar­gin had usu­ally been mea­sured down to the hour even be­fore the shut­down — mak­ing pay­ments up against dead­lines, bor­row­ing from one credit card to pay down an­other, spend­ing ex­actly what she earned to cover es­sen­tials for her son and her niece. It was a high-wire act that un­folded each two-week pay cy­cle, and she was able to pull it off be­cause of the pre­dictabil­ity of her gov­ern­ment job. Every other Wed­nes­day, she could count on about $900 be­ing de­posited into her bank ac­count af­ter de­duc­tions, so she could pay down her debts be­fore catastrophe came.

She picked out ear­rings for the next morn­ing and set her alarm. Her co-work­ers some­times joked that she was the per­fect fit for the de­tail-ori­ented IRS, al­ways at her desk with a cup of cof­fee five min­utes be­fore her shift be­gan. She spent her work­days check­ing line items in strangers’ tax re­turns and then brought that metic­u­lous­ness back home, keep­ing spread­sheets of her own fi­nances and a binder of lam­i­nated cer­tifi­cates com­mem­o­rat­ing her “loyal gov­ern­ment ser­vice” for five, 10, and then 15 years.

Her cell­phone rang and she an­swered it. “Hey, you got my text?” she said, and then her friend said he had just read about the end of the shut­down.

“So I guess this is con­grat­u­la­tions,” he told her. “They ac­tu­ally made a deal? You’re get­ting paid back for all of this?”

She thought about telling him how her back pay, when­ever it ar­rived, would cover less than half of what she now owed in over­due pay­ments and late charges. She thought about telling him how the deal in fact only promised fed­eral fund­ing for the next three weeks, at which point she could be out of work again. She thought about all of the things she had al­ready for­feited to the shut­down, and how much she’d al­ways val­ued be­ing able to pro­vide for her­self.

“Yep, it’s over,” she told her friend. “I’m back at work to­mor­row. It’s the best kind of news.”

“So you’re okay then? You’re mak­ing it?”

“I hung in,” she said. “You know me. I’m a go-get­ter.”

She awoke the next morn­ing at 5:30. She straight­ened her hair, drained the last $7.80 in her sav­ings ac­count to buy gas, and made it to work five min­utes be­fore her shift. She ate a packed lunch from a food bank, stayed af­ter work for a vol­un­tary train­ing ses­sion, and then came back home to find more bills wait­ing in her mail­box.

She owed her cell­phone com­pany $190. The bank was giv­ing her nine more days to pay $3,200 for her car — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of missed pay­ments, late penal­ties, in­ter­est and re­pos­ses­sion charges. If she failed to pay, the bank would re­sell her car to some­one else and charge her the dif­fer­ence in price, pos­si­bly as much as $10,000.

“We are hop­ing to be able to work with you as a loyal, long­stand­ing gov­ern­ment em­ployee,” one let­ter read.

She had first ap­plied to work at IRS be­cause she be­lieved the words “gov­ern­ment em­ployee” would give her clear­ance into a different kind of life. She’d got­ten preg­nant with her daugh­ter dur­ing high school, dropped out, and then gone back a few years later to earn a de­gree. She worked as a bar­tender, a wait­ress, and a sec­re­tary be­fore a rel­a­tive gave her an ap­pli­ca­tion for the IRS. “Trade your job for a ca­reer,” it read. “Use your tal­ents to serve the Amer­i­can pub­lic and fund our fu­ture. You re­ally can help make our na­tion a bet­ter place.”

It had taken her a few tries to get hired, first for sea­sonal work and then full-time. She had risen from data en­try clerk all the way up to tax code in­struc­tor. The IRS had needed some­one to re­lo­cate to Texas, so she agreed to move for six months. A boss sug­gested she learn more about IT, so she en­rolled in col­lege classes at night, un­til the fa­tigue of 15-hour days cul­mi­nated in a se­ries of mi­nor strokes that re­quired her to wear a heart mon­i­tor at her desk.

Her friends some­times told her she was sac­ri­fic­ing too much for an $18-an-hour job, but she con­sid­ered it an in­vest­ment. She was com­mit­ted to the gov­ern­ment, and the gov­ern­ment was com­mit­ted to her. It was a con­tract that came with sick leave, de­cent den­tal cov­er­age and the like­li­hood of pro­mo­tion. She dec­o­rated her home with tiny Amer­i­can flags and small posters tes­ti­fy­ing to the value of com­mit­ment and hard work.

“Work from your heart. Love what you do.” “Loy­alty is al­ways re­warded.” She had never cared ei­ther way about pol­i­tics, or whether there was a con­crete wall or a steel bar­rier or metal slats or noth­ing at all along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, but she ad­mired Pres­i­dent Trump for his busi­ness savvy. She be­lieved he was a tough ne­go­tia­tor, but lately she felt like col­lat­eral in one of his deals. “I’m sure that the peo­ple that are on the re­ceiv­ing end will make ad­just­ments,” he had said, and she was think­ing about how many more ad­just­ments she needed to make when her 15-year-old son walked into her bed­room one af­ter­noon, fid­get­ing with a ten­nis ball and look­ing con­cerned. “How real is that?” he asked. “Not real yet,” she said, even though she’d al­ready vis­ited a low­in­come hous­ing project a few miles away, a squat green apart­ment com­plex where three bed­rooms went for $600.

“Se­ri­ously,” he said. “I just want to know.”

His baby hand­prints were ce­mented on their front porch next to hers, “Baby Johnny, 8-4-05.” He had never lived any­place else.

“I’m not plan­ning on go­ing any­where,” she told him, and then she gave him a hug and waved him out of the room. She watched him walk away and took out her cell­phone.

“Hey,” she wrote to an ex-boy the friend. “I need a huge fa­vor. Can I bor­row some $?”

The ex-boyfriend said he al­ready owed money on his back taxes. A cousin said she was be­tween jobs. An­other rel­a­tive said she’d just in­vested all of her ex­tra cash in a house.

“I hate to even ask you for this,” Ibarra texted to friends, again and again, un­til she’d made her way through most of the con­tacts in her phone, none of whom had $3,000 to spare. She put in an ap­pli­ca­tion for part-time work at a store near her house. She sent a few blind Face­book mes­sages to celebri­ties ask­ing for help. The bank called and left au­to­mated mes­sages on her phone say­ing she had eight days left be­fore it sold her car. Seven days. Five.

She awoke one morn­ing with her alarm at 5:30 and de­cided to do what she had rarely done: call her man­ager to tell him she would be late. “I know we’re back at work, but I’m still deal­ing with the fall­out from not work­ing,” she said.

The day be­fore, she had re­ceived $1,900 in back pay, which she planned to put to­ward rent, cable TV and her phone. That still left her with over­due credit card pay­ments and $3,200 for the car. She printed out a few of her re­cent pay stubs and a state­ment of her re­main­ing debts. Then she com­piled ev­ery­thing into a folder and drove to the bank to ap­ply for a loan.

“So I guess this is your rainy day,” a banker said, lead­ing her to a desk with two chairs. She handed him the pay stubs from the folder. She told him about her 16 years at the IRS, the shut­down, and her re­pos­sessed car.

“We’ve had four or five peo­ple com­ing in every day be­cause of the shut­down,” he said. “Let’s see if we can help.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said. She sat back in her chair and waited while he typed into his com­puter. “What are your in­ter­est rates?” she asked.

“It all de­pends on your credit,” he said.

She winced and reached into her folder for an­other piece of pa­per, this one with her credit score in bold: 540. She handed it to him. He glanced at it and then looked back at his com­puter. “Okay,” he said.

“Just so you know, that num­ber isn’t re­ally me,” she said. “I used to be way up in the 700s, al­ways had real good credit, but then with this whole shut­down one un­paid bill started pil­ing into the next.”

The banker was still look­ing at the com­puter.

“I’m not try­ing to make up ex­cuses,” she said. “I’m just say­ing, that num­ber is giv­ing you the wrong idea. This isn’t me. I’m a go-get­ter. I’m a sin­gle mother. I usu­ally take care of ev­ery­thing my­self.”

“Right, but this is your score,” the banker said. He ges­tured back to the num­ber in bold, and she nod­ded.

“No prob­lem,” he said. “We can still do an ap­pli­ca­tion and see what comes back.”

“But I’m not go­ing to qual­ify, right?” she said. “We can’t re­ally say.” “But prob­a­bly not.” “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. Prob­a­bly not.”

“So what am I sup­posed to do?” she asked, her voice ris­ing an oc­tave, the frus­tra­tion build­ing, eye shadow smudg­ing on her cheeks as her sen­tences col­lided. “I can’t even. . . . I’ve been work­ing non­stop, and then it’s just. ... Can’t you see this isn’t my fault? How am I sup­posed to pre­pare for some­thing that’s —”

He reached across the desk and lightly touched her arm. “Look. There are other op­tions,” he said, and he pointed down the street, in the di­rec­tion of a sprawl­ing shop­ping cen­ter with three pay­day lenders. She col­lected her pa­pers off his desk, left the bank and drove a half mile down the road, park­ing in front of a neon green bill­board that read: “In­stant Cash To­day!”

She sat in the park­ing lot for a few mo­ments, star­ing into a store­front. A se­cu­rity guard stood watch at the door. A house painter with white smudges across his jeans spoke to an em­ployee seated be­hind thick glass. Ibarra could see a poster on the wall ad­ver­tis­ing a 200 per­cent an­nual rate on loans, and she took out a piece of pa­per and ran through some quick cal­cu­la­tions. If she bor­rowed $3,000, she fig­ured she would have to pay back at least $6,000 over the next year — an ex­tra $500 monthly she couldn’t af­ford, espe­cially with an­other po­ten­tial shut­down just days away.

“Bring us your prob­lems,” read a sign in­side the store, and at the mo­ment, she could think of nowhere else to take them. This was how far she had fallen af­ter a 35-day shut­down. She won­dered how much worse it would be­come if the gov­ern­ment shut down again.

“Out of one cri­sis and into an­other,” she said. Then she touched up her makeup in the rearview mir­ror, grabbed the spread­sheet of her debts and headed to­ward the door.

Vicki Ibarra of Fresno, Calif., asks a friend for money as she tries to scrape to­gether $3,000 to save her re­pos­sessed car. Al­though Ibarra takes pride in self-suf­fi­ciency, the loss of an IRS pay­check dur­ing the shut­down left her with no choice.

PHO­TOS BY JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Vicki Ibarra searches for food to take to work last week. With her sav­ings de­pleted and credit score bat­tered, she has con­sid­ered mov­ing to a low-in­come hous­ing project.

Vicki Ibarra drives from one pay­day lender to an­other this month to check on rates for a quick loan to save her re­pos­sessed car. A bank re­jected her loan ap­pli­ca­tion. BELOW: Ibarra plays with a bal­loon with her son Johnny, 15, and his girl­friend, Liz Mata, 16, at home in Fresno, Calif.

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