The Trentonian – TRENTON >> Sherry Rubel, a substitute teacher, recently got divorced.
The decision affected her life in ways she could not imagine.
“I no longer had health benefits,” Rubel said Wednesday during a roundtable discussion at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen attended by state and local leaders. “I do not make enough money to put a roof over my head. I lived in my van for a year.”
She felt that she was the “new America.”
“The American dream has faded,” said Rubel, who now sleeps on her ex-husband’s couch. “There are many of us, who were at one time middle class. I don’t know how I will ever pull myself up out of the position I am in.”
Rubel was one of three New Jersey workers who shared their stories about the difficulty of making ends meat in today’s economic climate.
State Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) listened intently as efforts they’ve tried to pass in the legislature to help the working poor were vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
But that won’t stop Sweeney from attempting to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit back to 25 percent and implement a millionaires tax. Turner will also keep trying to have legislation signed into law that would prevent families from losing food stamp benefits.
“We’re not going to give up,” the longtime 15th district legislator said. “We’re going to keep on putting that legislation on the governor’s desk, and we’re going to keep on pushing, and eventually we’re going to get there.”
Devika Smith, a nursing assistant in Jersey City, is a single parent of four children.
She earns a salary of approximately $25,000.
“I work hard for a better life for my children,” said Smith, who relies on Medicaid because she can’t afford health insurance. “This is a struggle. I am the working poor.”
Dennis Micai, executive director of TASK, said most of the 250,000 meals the soup kitchen serves yearly are not to the homeless.
“They’re not drug addicted, they’re not mentally ill,” he said. “They’re just low income folk that can’t make it. It is unacceptable to me that people work full-time jobs and can’t make it.”
He also said he’s been an “utter failure” at his goal when he took over as executive director.
“When I first took this job, my goal was to put us out of business,” Micai said.
On Tuesday, TASK opened its tenth satellite site in the Yardville section of Hamilton.
“It’s not just an urban issue,” Micai said. “We have 10 satellite sites, six of them outside of the city of Trenton.”
Robert Worrel, a security guard at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, is one of the people that needs to use the services of a food bank.
He used to worked in culinary, but switched to the security side of casinos because his hours were cut significantly.
“Now, I get 40 hours a week, but my pay dropped $6 an hour,” he disclosed.
His wife also lost a job at the now-defunct Revel Casino, earning $1,500 to $1,700 every two weeks.
“She’s now unemployed,” Worrel said, adding they have a three-year-old son and his disabled sister lives with them. “We support her, we just can’t support ourselves. This is not just me. There’s a lot of workers down in Atlantic that are having the same issues.”
After listening to the stories, Sweeney said the American dream is slipping further and further away.
“You got to focus on helping people on the lower spectrum because any one of us could be there at any time,” the state Senate president said. “There’s too much holding of the wealth on one end of the spectrum.”
Turner said two states have been formed: the haves and the have nots.
“After all these years we still continue to think that trickle down works,” she said. “And trickle down does not work. We need to be about trickle up.”
Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, who just celebrated 26 years being sober, shared his own struggles. We went through three recovery stints and worked in the restaurant business before eventually landing on his feet.
“You’re not alone,” he said. “There are people out there who have lived through some of the bumps. It’s people working hard and not getting any support. It’s like the safety net just been torn away.”