LAKELAND – Meagan Wernholm’s expressive face reflects pure joy as she flies back and forth on her backyard swing. Comforted by the rhythmic movement, she sometimes spends hours this way, to the relief of her mother, who never is very far away.
Because of her autism, Meagan, 11, requires more attention than most children her age. Her mother, Soundra Wernholm, says she hasn’t held a job since giving birth to her youngest child.
But circumstances have changed, forcing Wernholm to consider jumping back into the workforce.
Until recently, the family’s monthly income was $1,500, money awarded to Meagan and her sister, Candace, for disabilities and Social Security survivor benefits resulting from the death of their father in 2008.
The Wernholms’ annual income of $18,000 positioned them well below the federal poverty guidelines of $20,000 for a family of three, putting them in an exclusive club in Polk County, which has one of the highest rates of suburban poverty in the nation.
The poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,250. For a single adult it’s $11,770.
Slightly more than 18 percent of Polk residents live below the poverty level, according to Census figures.
For these families, struggles are plentiful. A single unexpected expense can trigger hardship, such as going without electricity, water, even food.
Many more families with at least one head of household actively working are unable to earn enough for basic economic survival, according to a recent study by United Way of Florida that cites the state’s high cost of living and low salaries as contributing factors.
Just to survive in Polk – maintain a home, pay the bills on time, put enough food on the table – requires an annual income of $47,484 for a typical family of four, and $18,624 for a single adult, according to the recent United Way study. The key word here is “survival.” The project’s authors say it takes much more income to instill a degree of self-sufficiency, as much as $81,972 for a family of four; $24,764 for a single adult.
Despite nearly $40 billion in public and private assistance available to help Florida’s struggling families, it isn’t enough to provide financial stability, the United Way study said, leaving the entire community to suffer.
For instance, economic instability contributes to children lacking what they need to be ready for school, putting a strain on the educational system.
Without preventative health care, families access care through a variety of more expense avenues, like emergency rooms, that generate greater costs for society at large, such as higher insurance premiums.
For the Wernholms, living below the federally established poverty line offers plenty of challenges. But some of the estimated $40 billion in public and private assistance does trickle down, allowing them to maintain a household with few luxuries.
Meagan’s disability qualifies her for $172 in monthly Supplemental Security Income. Her sister, Candace, receives the same amount for a heart condition. Until recently each of the girls received another $582 in monthly Social Security survivor benefits, bringing total household income to $1,508 a month, or just more than $18,000 annually.
But Candace lost her Social Security benefit in June after turning 18, lowering their annual household income to just above $11,000.
That’s a far cry from the $50,000 in annual income their father earned when he was alive and working as a long-haul truck driver. Richard Wernholm died on July 13, 2008, from a heart attack, Soundra Wernholm said, and lacked a life insurance policy.
Things were nice while her husband was alive and earning enough to provide for a family of six, Wernholm said. “We were finally getting good with the pay that he was promised. You worried about the bills like everybody else, but it was nice.”
Today, things are much different.
Candace, a high school dropout, has encountered difficulties in finding employment and is considering taking a class to earn a GED.
“It’s really hard. I don’t even get in the door (without a diploma),” she said.
Faced with the loss of her daughter’s Social Security, Soundra Wernholm has mounted a concerted effort to find a job. “I’m still looking,” she said. “I haven’t worked in 17 years. I have no work experience, and I’m getting up there in age.”
Wernholm said she hopes to work around daughter Meagan’s schedule at Oscar J. Pope Elementary School, which specializes in children with profound disabilities. Meagan’s autism is severe, requiring the full attention of her mother. “She does well in school; she likes it,” she said.
The Wernholms and other Lakeland families living below the poverty line benefit from the area’s surplus of churches and charities that offer all manner of assistance, especially when it comes to food. And while property rates continue to rise, some affordable options remain. For instance, the Wernholms pay just $500 a month for a small apartment in the Lake Morton Historic District.
The family stretches its food budget with free groceries distributed at several sites, including Compassion House, a program of First Baptist Church at the Mall. Once a month Soundra Wernholm receives a box of goods that may include a frozen ham, canned vegetables and boxes of macaroni and cheese. A typical box may provide enough food for several days, she said.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is good for a box of food once a month, she said, and Catholic Charities hands out groceries every six months. Wernholm tears up as she describes her schedule for gathering free food. “It’s just bad when you can’t feed your own kids,” she says.
Her slim income forces Wernholm to do without the medications she requires to treat ulcers and an anxiety disorder. Although enrolled in Medicaid’s Medically Needy program, she said out-of-pocket costs are too high. “I can’t afford it,” she said. “It’s either eat each month or that (buy medicine). And it’s more important for my kids to eat.
“In some ways I am (better off without the medicine), but some days I have panic attacks and can’t breathe. I’m crying all the time. It (the medication) kept me calm. I could handle things a lot better.”
Wernholm also struggles with the expense of maintaining and operating a car, which is paid for. But she’s seldom able to afford fuel, so she relies on friends to get around, or her older children.
A simple unexpected expense, such as a recent repair to a laundry dryer, puts enormous stress on her nerves, she said.
A job would greatly improve her quality of life. She remains hopeful of her prospects, but worries about Meagan, who can’t be left alone. Who will watch her when she’s not in school?
Candace, Wernholm said, doesn’t have the patience to watch over her younger sister, and she needs to find a job as well.
“I try to not bother too many people with my situation,” she said. “I know there’s too many people who need help. I can pay my bills, but I don’t have much left over. I need a job.”