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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Guest columnist: I’m unemployed and hanging on by my fingernails

I represent the neoteric face of poverty emerging in the 21st century, writes guest columnist Patricia D. Fuller.

Special to The Times

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I REPRESENT the neoteric face of poverty emerging in the 21st century. I’m not a refugee from a war-torn Third-World country or a panhandler in Pioneer Square. I’m a single, white female, born and raised in post-World War II suburban America, a boomer from an endangered species known as the middle class.

Conventional wisdom of that bygone era held that formal education was the key to success. Accordingly, I obtained a college degree. However, fortune has not smiled upon me.

My last position as an administrative assistant at a struggling nonprofit organization was eliminated in the spring of 2010. Along with a modest livelihood went my health-care benefits and employer-matched contributions to an embryonic 401(k) plan.

A series of job layoffs as well as poor financial planning have thrust me to the precipice of homelessness. Frightfully soon I’ll be at the mercy of the unsympathetic corporate entity that owns the roof over my head.

The prospect of surrendering the comfort and security of my apartment for a cot in a Salvation Army shelter is haunting. A discarded cardboard box “condo” behind a strip mall, as opposed to shivering beneath a blanket in my aging Honda Civic, will be my only other housing option.

The thought of Dumpster diving, not to mention bathing in public restrooms and rubbing elbows in soup kitchens, chills my soul. Must I additionally endure the ignominy of loitering on a patch of dirt and weeds at the 148th Avenue Northeast exit ramp on Highway 520, waving a hand-lettered “Homeless please help God bless” sign alongside the man selling roses to motorists?

At the tender age of 60, I can’t start collecting Social Security either, despite a history of breast cancer. I’m already straining to read through outdated bifocals and I have unfilled cavities, but there’s no money for dentists, much less ophthalmologists and general practitioners.

Unexpectedly, last month I had to write a check to the U.S. Treasury t for $1,463, funds I had allocated to cover March rent and groceries. To my horror, I unwittingly shortchanged the IRS in 2012 even though Uncle Sam’s portions were skimmed off the top of each withdrawal I made from a now-defunct IRA. The dregs of that account are all that’s left and I’m afraid those few dollars won’t stretch much beyond Memorial Day.

My brother and closest friends live hundreds of miles away. They have reached into their collective pockets on my behalf in the past, but it’s not fair asking them to compromise their budgets again. Moreover, I feel deeply ashamed for painting myself into this perilous corner in the first place.

I strongly encourage our state lawmakers to approve legislation expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act for a close-to-home, personal reason: Should my cancer return, Medicaid might mean the difference between life and death in terms of accessibility to treatment.

Consumers also have an urgent need for reforms in the oral-care industry. An alarming number of people neglect their teeth because affordable dental insurance is as scarce as Sasquatch. Legislators considered creating a new license for dental therapists to perform a limited range of services at reduced rates similar to a physician assistant. I hope it happens.

A lifetime ago a naive young graduate of 23 crossed the stage of a crowded auditorium excitedly clutching her new bachelor’s degree in English. Her future looked bright and promising. Today, that naive girl harboring so much potential is a wizened indigent waiting her turn in line at the social-services counter. Thinking about what never was, and now never will be, fills me with despair.

Patricia D. Fuller lives in Redmond.


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