The Flopeye Cafe in Great Falls, South Carolina has at least a dozen forms of fried on its menu. I order two: breaded squash with tater tots. The server chuckles as I bemoan my lack of restraint. Laughter comes easy for Rebecca Polston, as do the tears after she sits down to talk to me.
The 30-year-old South Carolina native has never had an easy life. Over the past year, the recession consumed what little material comfort and financial stability she did enjoy.
Her husband Charles lost his job as a heavy machine operator last summer after the slowing real estate market put the brakes on new construction. The couple spent a few fruitless months job hunting near their home in the Charlotte, NC metropolitan-area before accepting that they would need to make some major changes if they were to survive the recession.
Charles's family in Great Falls--a hardscrabble town of 2,000 about an hour south of Charlotte--found a 4-bedroom house renting for $325 a month--$200 less than the Polston's were paying in Rock Hill. So just before Thanksgiving, Rebecca packed up their life in the city and moved to the country with her husband, three young children, and the 23-year-old brother she has cared for most of his life.
"We thought coming down here close to family we could pool our resources. Live close together. Help each other out. Make it a little easier for everyone. We did what we thought was best to survive and get through this recession," she says.
Country living is less expensive, and having a local support network of family does help. A niece helps take care of the kids, and an aunt loaned her a car when hers developed a problem too expensive to repair right now. With an unemployment rate of 21.8% in their new home county of Chester, however, the move has not proven a panacea for their problems.
Finally securing a job waitressing at the Flopeye Cafe four months ago, Rebecca now works as much as she can--usually 44-51 hours per week--earning about minimum wage, including tips. Her younger brother, Zachary, who'd also been laid off from a construction job in the past year, now logs in about 50-60 hours a week at a local tire shop. Between the two incomes, the household manages to get by--but just barely. Rebecca shrugs it off: "We may not have much, but we got what we need. Maybe not what we want, but we got what we need."
Her husband has kept up a relentless search for new employment. But with no jobs to be had, Charles has extended the reach of his hunt as far as Louisiana. If he can land another $15/hr construction job, Rebecca would be ready to pack up and move again. "I'd rather stay here," she says. "But to support the family, you got to go where the jobs are. And that's not here."
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that her marriage has felt the strain. "We argue a lot more now. Sometimes about money, but really it's just the stress build-up. Everything in our life is more difficult."
More than the money, job, potential relocation, or her marriage, Rebecca worries about how the instability will affect her children. "I just worry so much about my kids. About being able to feed them. About what the future will hold for them. The only thing I know for certain about the future is that I will provide for my kids. By any means necessary, I will take care of my kids," she adds for emphasis. "But I want them to have a better life than I did. Under the circumstances, I don't see how that can happen."
The love Rebecca shows for her children and the generosity she extends to others gives clarity to many things so much more important than money. Even under the current circumstances, Rebecca found room to open her home to a neighbor boy in need. "His daddy don't have much money and things aren't good at home. I can't see a child raised like that. My Grandma raised me that if you see someone in trouble, you have to do whatever you can to help."
So for the past couple of months, 14-year-old Brett has been sleeping on her couch, helping keep up the house and take care of the kids--even sometimes bussing tables and washing dishes for her at the Flopeye. He may have just been a neighbor when the Polston's moved to Great Falls in November, but by now he's family. For Rebecca, that's more important than the expenses he might add to the household budget.
"You've got to have money to survive," she says. "But you don't need a fortune as long as you got family. It's the ones without family that I feel sorry for."