Several years ago, Marcy Carter remembers reading a cognitive
therapy book called “Feeling Good” and filling out
a questionnaire. According to the results of the questionnaire,
she was suicidal and should seek psychiatric help immediately.
That had been one of her low points, Marcy remembers, and also
the point when she realized she would either have to reach out
for help and pull herself out of this downward spiral, or slip
Today, the petite 41-year-old appreciates a metaphor her therapist
uses to describe her experience: the “frog-in-the-boiling-water
theory.” If you put the frog into mild water and turn up
the heat gradually, she explained with a determined calm in her
voice, the frog stays in.
The chain of events that lead a person into poverty are so tightly
interwoven that one seemingly slight development might just be
the one to lead you over the edge. In his recent book, “The
Working Poor,” journalist David K Shipler illustrates how
a run-down apartment can exacerbate a child’s asthma, leading
to an attack that forces a mother to call an ambulance, which
generates a medical bill that cannot be paid, which ruins a credit
record, which hikes up the interest rate on an auto loan, which
forces the purchase of an unreliable used car, which jeopardizes
the mother’s punctuality at work, which limits her promotion
and earning capacity, and which ultimately confines her to poor
Those of us who would blame the poor for not making the right
decisions — for not ‘getting their act together’
— are unfamiliar with this risky, vicious circle. But ask
the day laborer, the teen-age single mother, or the toothless
man who buys a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with the money he’s
made from recycling three bags of cans at the grocery store. They
know all about it.
And so does Marcy Carter. Two abusive husbands, chronic health
problems, unemployment, a son’s suicide — that’s
the kind of bad luck that one doesn’t easily shake off.
And with the gap between rich and poor increasing in Michigan,
more of us are getting a taste of it. This is Marcy’s story.
It started out well enough …
Marcy Carter, 41, lives on the east side of Lansing on a somewhat
rundown street in the area served by the Allen Neighborhood Center.
She was born to a middle-class family; the world must have at
first seemed to offer many opportunities. Her paternal grandmother
had a bachelor’s degree, and her grandfather had been a
vice president at Chrysler. Marcy’s father grew up in a
wealthy neighborhood in Gross Pointe Farms. Born in Jackson, her
family lived in Alma and Toledo when she was young, before they
finally settled in Cadillac, where her father, a radio announcer,
was offered the job of managing a radio station.
Carter and her younger daughter, Kristen.
Marcy’s parents divorced when she was 11,
and her mother was left to manage the family finances for her
and her two siblings. She was often unemployed. But things became
much worse when Marcy was 18, and her younger sister died in a
car accident. “We were really just running around blind,”
she recalls. “My mom had faced a lot of challenges. We were
brought up keeping it to ourselves and trying to appear normal.
I just couldn’t handle it. I was depressed about losing
my sister. I went to Ferris State University in Big Rapids for
two semesters but didn’t go to classes. It was self-esteem
more than anything else. I don’t know if it would have helped
if someone had asked me what I really thought I was going to do
with the rest of my life. But nobody ever did.”
She dropped out and started working as a waitress. At the age
of 24, when her daughter Pamela was born, she remembers feeling
that she could turn things around. “I wanted to tell my
daughter that she could do anything she wanted to do in her life.”
But it wasn’t at all that easy. Her husband’s growing
alcoholism problem placed too much stress on the young family
and Marcy asked for a divorce. “I couldn’t put my
daughter through the experience of looking out of the window watching
for someone who was going to be at the bar. I would try to take
care of myself.” She left Gary and soon found herself working
at a series of low-wage, part-time jobs in Williamston.
There was a lot of hard manual labor, difficult for a woman who
weighed 90 pounds and was 5’ 2’’ tall. At one
bar, she lifted cases of longneck beer bottles and hauled ice
buckets from the basement. She also worked as a waitress and cook
at a bar where no one paid tips. “My boss told me, ‘You’re
going to make $4.50 coming in the door, and you’ll make
$4.50 going out.’”
Getting child support from her ex-husband was nearly impossible.
He had moved to Florida, changed jobs frequently and didn’t
always inform the court of his address or current employer. Carter
has no contact with Gary today and believes the guilt of not paying
child support probably keeps him away. The court never tries to
track him down, either. A payment of $1,000 came two years ago,
she said, but there was nothing after that. Until a few weeks
ago, when she received $13. “It’s been off and on
like this since the beginning. He owes us close to $40,000 in
Marcy was introduced to Phil, her second husband and the father
of her son, P.J., by a mutual acquaintance of her ex-husband.
When her employers found out she was pregnant, she was soon fired
from all her part-time jobs. “The mentality was that you’re
not valuable. You’re totally replaceable.” Her husband,
Phil, was on disability leave.
But she was fortunate to get some help from the state during this
difficult period, she says. Social Services assisted the family
with a bus pass and money for parking. “Three times I had
to send in copies of receipts. Most poor people wouldn’t
take the time to make all of those copies. I was fortunate that
my mother-in-law would take them to work and make copies. She
was also paying for the day care.”
Marcy’s luck seemed to be changing for the better. When
her grandmother died, she was left a small trust fund that covered
the costs for her to attend Lansing Community College for two
years and obtain an associate’s degree. It seemed as if
she might be able to move away from those part-time, low-wage,
no-benefits jobs for good. The degree helped Marcy find a full-time
job as a secretary at a Lansing real estate development company.
After finding the full-time job in 1992, Marcy believed that she
would be able to live a more successful life. Her husband’s
parents had money. They helped with expenses and even bought them
Phil seemed like a sensitive guy when she met him — “like
a lot of people that learn to cover it up, and gradually work
the abuse into the relationship,” she said. He had survived
a serious automobile accident with a bad arm injury. The other
driver, a pregnant woman, was killed, but they had been able to
save her unborn child.
Although on disability, her husband still led an active life.
He liked bowhunting and snowmobiling. “He never learned
to appreciate what he had because it was so easy to get.”
Yaw /City Pulse
Marcy Carter at the east side home she shares with her husband.
In 1996, Marcy’s 8-year-old daughter came
to her and told her that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather.
This brought the mother close to a nervous breakdown. “He
denied it. I called an attorney to get help, because I didn’t
know what to do. I honestly thought that if it was going to be
something that he would admit, and if he was going to get the
kind of help he needed, I wanted to save our marriage.”
Marcy took her daughter and moved into a hotel for a while. The
attorney referred the child to a doctor, whose findings were inconclusive
due to lack of any visible physical damage. Not sure how she should
react when her husband denied the allegations, she moved back
in with him.
But things wouldn’t be the same after the allegations. “He
was there, sitting in one room by himself, watching more violent
movies. Usually it would be me, with Pam and P.J. in my arms,
watching TV in the other room.”
What followed was a nightmarish legal battle on the issues of
divorce and custody of her son P.J., who lived with his father.
She moved into an apartment in Holt with her daughter but was
barely able to pay the rent. She learned that her husband had
been arrested for manufacturing drugs, but when she tried to find
legal aid to obtain custody of her two children, the attorneys
she contacted wanted at least $10,000 to represent her.
“My problem was that I had to stand in front of this man
who had threatened me so greatly, so many times, and I didn’t
feel capable of this. Basically, P.J. was being held hostage during
this time. Any time things didn’t go along the way my ex-husband
wanted to, he just would stop letting me see him.”
Then the real estate business Marcy worked for went bankrupt,
and she lost her secretarial job. Once more, a chain of unlucky
events were happening, one after the other, leaving the woman
in a desperate situation. Her unemployment ran out, and Marcy
couldn’t find a job that would pay for her daughter’s
childcare. She started working the evening shift for Meijer as
cashier, for $5.50 an hour. She’d hoped to get weekend evenings
off, so she could see her son. But her supervisor told her: “What,
are you kidding? We’ll give you one night off a week, but
never Friday and Saturday night.” Trading shifts didn’t
work either, because most people in her shift already worked Friday
and Saturday evenings, unless they had seniority.
By this time Carter was beginning to suffer from terrible back
pains. One evening when they were short-handed and she had been
left to do both the grocery bagging and the cashier job, she remembers
that she kept calling her supervisor and begging to be let off
of the lane, because she needed to go to the bathroom. She was
not given a break for more than six hours. Carter quit the job.
“I wrote them a nice long letter, telling them what a terrible
event that was. They called me back and apologized. But of course
they didn’t offer me my job back, and they certainly didn’t
say it won’t happen again.“
Seeing her son became more and more difficult. During visits,
her ex-husband would yell and scream at her in front of her son.
“I became worried about the emotional damage that was being
caused every time I showed up. He would threaten that I would
never see my son again.”
Sadly, this is what happened. One month after his 12th birthday,
P.J. killed himself with his father’s gun.
The poverty of poor health
Living on the edge had been a foreign experience for Marcy, who
was raised with a middle-class set of values. “I didn’t
understand anything about all these different health and social
service agencies until 1989, when I went to get Medicaid for my
daughter. I remember that it was the happiest moment when I got
a $25 gift bonus to buy my 1-year-old a Christmas present. I had
nothing to give her. We didn’t have a phone most of the
time. We didn’t always have a lot of money to buy food when
I was a kid. But we could eat. As a kid, I thought $80 a week
is what you need for groceries. But I learned really quickly that
sometimes it’s only $30 for groceries, and you’re
lucky to have it.”
Today, Carter is married to her third husband, Chris, a handyman,
and she still deals with the kinds of problems that the working
poor face every day in America. Paying bills is a constant battle.
Recently her phone was shut off for two weeks while waiting for
her husband’s next paycheck. On the rare occasion that they
eat out, they go to McDonald’s.
The family has no dental insurance, and her children haven’t
seen a dentist for years. Fortunately, a dentist friend in Maryland
recently offered to treat them for free. But traveling to Maryland
won’t be that easy, she said, because her car muffler has
fallen off and the wiper isn’t working. “My mother-in-law
is probably going to end up using a credit card to rent us a dependable
car and actually pay for us to go to Maryland.”
Marcy’s back pain has gradually increased over the last
15 years, to the point that it is debilitating. It began as a
mild pain, while carrying her babies, and grew into shoulder problems
when baking and working as a waitress.
As a secretary, she had been responsible for buying all of the
office supplies. She would lift cases of copy paper that were
about 50 pounds. “I thought I was a super woman, but I wasn’t.
I really injured my back.”
In April 2001, around the time of her third daughter’s first
birthday, Marcy’s pain became so intense that she had to
go to the emergency room. They diagnosed degenerative scoliosis,
caused by repetitive strain and injury. Carter had done too much
lifting, bending, pulling, and carrying.
The scoliosis is now getting much worse, because it has progressed
down to her rib cage. The right side of her body is twisting forward.
Lifting her arms to just below her shoulder is about as far as
she can manage without pain. “My doctor told me, ‘Marcy
you’re screwed.’ I haven’t looked at my last
x-rays that were done in 2001. I’m sure that my joints are
all degenerated. I could tell that the x-ray technician felt sorry
for me. He looked at me with such pity.”
Had the scoliosis been diagnosed earlier, her doctors would have
advised against the third pregnancy. Carter says she is glad she
didn’t know that she was at high risk, because otherwise
she would not have had Kristen.
She expects that she will need a cane in a few years and eventually
might need a wheelchair.
She hopes to slow down the disease by aggravating her back less
often, but she isn’t confident because physical therapy
is so expensive. “Even with insurance it costs me about
$30 just for one adjustment.” Thus, Carter rarely goes to
physical therapy. And every time she lifts up her daughter, it
hurts. She hasn’t been able to take her to day care, and
go to physical therapy, because she has trouble lifting her daughter
to transport her. “That is unfortunately something I haven’t
been able to do.”
Almost three years after her son’s suicide, Carter still
suffers from post-traumatic stress. In addition to sleeplessness,
she still has nightmares about the police coming to her door to
tell her of the news. “I have difficulties if someone knocks
at the door, or when the phone rings. You just have such a heightened
awareness. It’s running in the back of your mind, all of
the time. I sit in the backyard watching my daughter play, and
feel a sense of well-being. But then I realize that my shoulders
are still tensed up. I’m still waiting for that next shoe
Carter says that she is still not sure whether money to pay for
the legal battle would have helped her. Asked what she would have
done differently, she says that she placed too much emphasis on
keeping a family together in a moderately comfortable home. “With
two children, I thought that this was one of the most important
things in the world. But now I’m starting to realize that
I probably should have taken the kids out and moved into a shelter.”
Now in a good marriage, Carter says she feels much happier than
ever before in her life. Still, it’s hard for her to watch
other people with their sons. She says that the wife of one of
her husband’s friends recently obtained custody of her two
sons, after paying over $25,000 in attorney’s fees. She
says that she would never have been able to raise such money herself.
“When I hear that, I get angry and think, ‘Why wasn’t
anybody there to help me?’”
No local support group offered help with her depression. And she
says that although she knows the suicide rate in her neighborhood
of Lansing is high, she hasn’t met a single person who acknowledged
losing a son or daughter in this way. “I think it’s
because of the shame that other people attach to suicide. People
are embarrassed and don’t know what to say to somebody that’s
been through a relative suicide. So they try to cover it up for
Because her scoliosis has kept her from finding work, Marcy’s
husband, who is a mechanical contractor, is still the sole breadwinner.
But being jobless hasn’t kept the persevering mother from
She discovered an Internet support group called Parents of Suicide
and became a member. “It’s wonderful. This allowed
me to be in a room, theoretically, with 400 people that think
I am normal.”
Carter has learned to create Web pages and has started a biweekly
newsletter, linked to the support group, called the “Butterfly
Net.” She receives more than 100 emails daily and has recently
begun taking notes on individual parents’ stories, in order
to better respond to their requests for help. Mothers and fathers
of children who’ve committed suicide are at a higher risk
of physical and mental illness.
In addition to the Internet group, Carter volunteers for the Central
United Methodist Church, maintaining the church’s Web site.
She says that interestingly, the first friends she made after
joining the church were homeless. “I could sympathize. They
couldn’t tell me things that would really shock me, because
I could picture myself in there.”
Marcy Carter dreams of becoming a social worker. She wants to
go back to college, and get her master’s degree in social
work, and to become politically active.
“I would like to help people with mental illnesses, make
parents accountable when they’re arrested for felonies,
and find legal assistance for people like me, who fall between
the cracks. Somebody’s gotta care.”