To Work or Not to Work?



Zarnell Arnold thought it was a joke when she opened the letter from public assistance in mid-April. “This is to tell you that your public assistance will be DISCONTINUED,” it read. The letter further informed her that her monthly income of $519.40 is $121.30 more than the $398.10 minimum stipulated for public assistance for a household of one.

“I’m losing $190 in cash and the rent assistance,” Arnold, 62, explained a few weeks later, holding up the letter with consternation.

Arnold, a heavyset African-American grandmother says she has a hard time seeing the end of the tunnel.

Up until now, she did not have to pay the $223 rent for her two-bedroom apartment in Jamaica, Queens because she was unemployed. On welfare, she received $187 in food stamps monthly and counted every single dollar coming out of her pocket.  “With that, it was difficult just to get anywhere,” she says.

Last February, however, after months of looking for a job, she got hired as a part-time mentor. Fifteen hours per week, for $10 an hour, she meets with foster parents to provide them with information about college.

But because she is now making $121.30 above the threshold allowed to receive public assistance, the state government warned her it was cutting part of its financial aid at the end of April. “Are they going to cut my Medicaid as well? It’s like they want you to stay poor,” Arnold says, flabbergasted.

“I know the bible says the poor you will have with you always,” Arnold recounts. “But I don’t want to be poor! I want to be able to have, in order to give back.”

Arnold stopped being able to give back, financially at least, after 2005, when the North-Carolina native (who moved to Harlem as a child) lost her $60,000 a year job at Bank One after the bank’s merger with JPMorgan Chase.  After working for the bank for 16 years, Arnold had to clean her desk and leave. She was 55.

Until then, she’d successfully raised her two daughters on her own, providing them with everything they needed. She also helped fellow parishioners from her church, Pure Gospel, who were in need.

Arnold did not look for a job right away. She had worked an average of 12 hours per day for the past two decades and felt like she was entitled to rest a little.  Plus, she had to take care of her health: she had high-blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnea and was developing arthritis.

“After 40 years I can at least say I own my car. I want to look back and say: I got something out of life. So yeah, I hold on to my car.”

– Zarnell Arnold, former JPMorgan Chase employee

But then in 2006, she began looking for a new job in earnest only to realize quickly that it was not going to be as easy as she thought. “Unfortunately for me, I don’t have college,” Arnold says, “and today even to be a receptionist you need college.  I have every qualification there is except that. Years ago, you could go to an agency and have a good appearance and show you’re a good individual. Now it’s all about that online resume.”

In 2008, as her unemployment benefits ran out, Arnold found a full-time position that paid $21 an hour at Faith Mission Alcohol Crisis Center in Jamaica, Queens. For two years, she helped drug and alcohol addicts go through rehab programs. “I liked it because I was helping people and I’ve always been a people person,” says Arnold. But the non-profit had its public funds cut and Arnold eventually had to leave the job. She then dipped into her pension and her savings to make ends meet.

Arnold tried to launch a cleaning company and then a gift basket enterprise where she sold candies and artificial flowers. But the cost of maintaining a starting business was too high, she says.

“I was looking for a full-time job,” she says, adding that employers “don’t want to hire someone that is over 55 years old.”

She occasionally works for the Board of Elections. “It pays $200 a pop and with that money I can buy Christmas presents from my grandchildren,” she says.

Her daughters also helped, paying her cable bill and some other things. “But I suffer mentally,” Arnold says,  “I’m independent and I’ve always been the one helping others not the other way around.”

What’s worse, she’s also in debt. With her seven years of financial instability, she owes about $15,000 on her five credit cards and on loans she wasn’t able to pay back because she was unemployed.

For the past few months, she’s been thinking about declaring bankruptcy. “The debt collectors call you at home, they harass you, they threaten you to take you to the court,” she says. “Well you know what: right now I got to live so unfortunately paying you is not an option.”

But the latest wrinkle—the letter from public assistance—makes it even more complicated for her. “What’s going to happen if I get another part-time job and start making money again? If they collect that money, will I ever get out of poverty?” she asks.

Declaring bankruptcy would clean all of Arnold’s credits records and allow her to start from scratch. But, she says, it would cost her $300 up front to file the paperwork on her own and about $1,500 if she hires a lawyer to help her.

“Where do I get the money to do that?” she asks.

By declaring bankruptcy, Arnold says she would have to give up on one of her oldest dreams: starting a soul food catering business.

Despite her financial struggles, she’s managed over the past 12 years to keep one credit card in good standing in the hopes that the bank will one day loan her money to launch her business.  “A part of me is tired and thinks declaring bankruptcy is the best option, but another one is like, but this is my dream,” she says.

She’s also never missed a $120 monthly payment on her car insurance.

Why not sell the car and save the cost?

“That’s all I’ve got, that’s all I own,” she said of the light green Hyundai Elantra she’s been driving since 1996. “After 40 years I can at least say I own my car.  I want to look back and say: I got something out of life. So yeah, I hold on to my car.”