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Filling the gap: Young families rely more and more on aid to make ends meet

Amanda and Ryan Velivlis, of Parkville, like millions of families rely on government aid to make ends meet since the recession began, said Diana Pearce, author of the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard report for Maryland.

Thrift stores. Generic brands. Cash, not credit. And government assistance. This is how the Velivlis family is staying afloat in a time when wages aren't keeping up with the cost of living.

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"It would be nice to be able to have that lifestyle where you can go to Baby Gap and spend $60, but we make it work," said Amanda Velivlis, 25, who lives with her husband, Ryan, 37, and their 18-month-old daughter, Evelyn, in a rented Baltimore County townhouse.

"We're making it on our own. It's tough, but we're doing it."

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Except that the Velivlis family is not making it on its own. They get help from family, friends and the government.

And in that way, Amanda and Ryan Velivlis, of Parkville, are like millions of families who have turned to government programs to make ends meet since the recession began , said Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

"One thing to think about is what is becoming the 'new normal,'" Pearce said. "The ordinary young family often cannot in fact make it 'on their own' anymore," in the strict sense of that term, Pearce said. So, instead, many must now turn to the help of subsidized community colleges, financial aid, child care and health care in order to make ends meet, Pearce said in an email interview.

Pearce is the author of the 2012 Self-Sufficiency Standard report for Maryland, which measures how much income families need to cover basic costs without using public or private assistance.

That study estimated that the annual wage required to pay for the basics —- including housing, child care, food, transportation and health care — for two adults and one infant in Baltimore County, is $61,132.

That's nowhere near the Velivlis family's income. The family depends on Ryan's $34,000 salary as a restaurant manager. And the couple's second child, a son they plan to name Kellen, is due in July.

They are frugal. They are planning for a more affluent future. For now, they fill the gap between their income and their costs by relying on help from family and friends and taking advantage of government programs for food, tuition and health insurance.

Using the resources

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The family pays about $1,200 for rent, $100 for cable and Internet, $100 for cell phones and between $75 and $150 for utilities each month. To save money, they do not have a house phone, and they each bought their used cars outright for a few thousand dollars each. They rarely go out to eat, and if they do, they eat at a discount at the restaurant where Ryan Velivlis works.

Amanda Velivlis recently gave up her waitressing job to go back to school at a community college to improve her job prospects. She has a Maryland Pell Grant and a small federal student loan.

Evelyn and Amanda Velivlis qualify for health coverage through the Maryland Children's HealthProgram, which provides coverage for pregnant women and children up to age 19 with income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The new baby will automatically be covered, and Amanda Velivlis's bills will be taken care of until six weeks after the birth.

The insurance her husband's employer provides is too expensive to provide for the whole family, she said. The state plan covers co-pays, prescriptions and the costs of childbirth. Velivlis said she appreciates that the program allows her privacy. She has an insurance card with no special markings, so she is not singled out as someone on medical assistance.

The family receives a check for $130 each month through WIC, the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children whose income falls at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The check can only be spent at the grocery store on specific healthy foods, including milk, eggs, bread, fruits and vegetables.

The Velivlises fall just below the threshold for both programs, which cap assistance for families of three just above $34,000 for WIC and $38,000 for the state insurance.

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Even with government help, Velivlis describes her family as "middle class." She said she sees no difference between those who use medical assistance and those who use student loans — and no one seems to condemn Pell Grant recipients.

Besides, she said, so many people need a little help today that there is less of a stigma in accepting it.

"I have no problem whatsoever using the assistance. We figure, we qualify for it, we might as well take advantage of it," Velivlis said. Her children "need medical care, and that trumps any guilt or negative feelings I have. ... My two children are worth using the resources available to us."

In her description of her family, Velivlis again is similar to many other low-income American families. Pearce said 90 percent of Americans consider themselves "middle class."

"Self-identification as middle class is the norm, regardless of the reality," Pearce said. "As to 'getting by' and 'making it on their own,' this is not quite the reality for all too many families."

Pearce pointed to the use of subsidized assistance like Pell Grants and even thrift stores as evidence that the Velivlis family receives plenty of help to make the single income stretch. Unlike single parents, the Velivlises can afford to have one parent withdraw from the labor force to make a "smart investment in the future."

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Once Amanda Velivlis finishes school and begins working full time, Pearce said, this short-term low income will in the long term likely result in the family's income rising above the self-sufficiency income levels.

Budgeting carefully

The Velivlises knew what they were getting into when they decided to start a family. They began dating in 2008, when the economy was already in shambles, and they discussed having children on their first date. Velivlis said she would prefer three children, but with money so tight, she does not see that as a possibility anymore.

Velivlis made more working 20 hours a week as a waitress than her husband did at his previous full-time job. She decided to enroll at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex with hopes of eventually finding work in radiography or respiratory care, both fields that have median starting salaries of $55,000.

Velivlis also wants to be able to spend a lot of time with her children, which nighttime schedule as a waitress wouldn't allow.

Now, Amanda and Ryan Velivlis take care to arrange their hours so that they can avoid the cost of child care. Ryan Velivlis is home with Evelyn in the morning while his wife attends school. And after he leaves for work at 2 p.m., Amanda Velivlis times homework with naps and bedtime. Wednesdays, when Ryan Velivlis works his only day shift and his wife is in class, they pay a friend $50 to watch Evelyn.

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"We got really lucky with child care," Velivlis said. "You're looking at another mortgage for full-time child care."

Even with government help, the family has to budget carefully. They found a less-expensive grocery store and buy mostly store brands, which they say saves about $100 a week. One of their few splurges is organic milk.

They shop at Walmart for nonfood items, such as toiletries. Velivlis goes to Walmart and thrift stores for clothing. Her mother helps by buying wholesale packs of diapers at Sam's Club.

"We have to shop like this," Velivlis said. "Right now in order to make ends meet, we make sure we get the best price on anything that we can ... I don't think (Evelyn) cares."

The family's discipline is in part a result of financial troubles in previous marriages. Velivlis filed bankruptcy in 2008 after her ex-husband stopped paying toward their mortgage and their house was foreclosed on.

Ryan Velivlis, who opened a martial arts business in 2004, declared bankruptcy in 2009 when the economy made it too difficult to keep the business open.

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Amanda Velivlis said the bankruptcies still affect their credit. She said the couple eliminated all remaining debt before Evelyn was born and they no longer have credit cards, so they are not tempted to spend money they do not have. They rent a home, rather than owning one, wary of getting locked into a dangerous mortgage or being unable to resell their home.

Velivlis acknowledged that their lifestyle has changed drastically since having children. She said she sometimes gets jealous of her single friends, or even her married friends who do not have kids, because they do not have to worry as much about money.

"We used to go out and have a beer, do a lot of stuff with friends," Velivlis said. "We've had to curb that ... when you have to buy diapers, you don't throw $50 on a bar tab anymore."


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