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American Dreams

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THE MITCHELLS

FERGUSON, MO. ANNUAL INCOME: $12,000

Occupations: Antonio, 30, a former cook, suffered trauma from a ’96 violent assault that keeps him from working. Pasha, 27, is in college (tuition paid by scholarship and financial assistance), studying to become a building inspector.

Kids: DeSean, 10; Anya, 6; Arieanna, 2 (with their cousin Kierra Johnson, far left); another baby is due in May.

Home: Three-bedroom house owned by a local nonprofit.

How they get by: Government aid and support from Beyond Housing/Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit.

College savings: $10 per month per child.

Based on income, kids’ chances of enrolling at a four-year college: 33 percent.

DeSean’s dream: To go to Harvard.

Anya’s dream: “To be a principal.”

Number of computers in the home: Two, both secondhand.

Based on income, the kids’ chances of becoming obese as teens: 16 percent.

Best moment of the past year: Thanksgiving dinner with the family.

Worst moment: When their ’88 Pontiac broke down in the center lane of I-70.

Biggest hope for the future: Says Antonio: “I want the kids to be leaders, not followers.”

Biggest fear: Not making ends meet. “It’s a struggle,” Pasha says.

“Until we moved here in 2000,” says Pasha, “we lived in a St. Louis boarding house. We lived out of boxes and shopping bags. A woman was stabbed to death on our front steps. The smell of drugs was so bad we had to open the windows for fresh air. But when you’re stuck, you’re stuck.”

Escaping meant going on welfare: “For now, as long as we’re trying to get off assistance, I don’t mind the help.” She says of their neighborhood, where she’s planning a vegetable garden in the backyard, “There’s a lot of dropouts and teen pregnancy here, so I really talk to the kids about that. DeSean is in a fourth-grade program for gifted children and reads on a seventh-grade level. He has more college brochures than any child I know. Sometimes he says, ‘I know I’m going to college, but what happens if I don’t?’ I tell him, ‘You can make the cheeseburger—or eat the cheeseburger.’ ”

THE HINCHEYS

NEW ORLEANS, LA. ANNUAL INCOME: $250,000

Occupations: Ron, 35, is a project manager in the engine-supply division of Caterpillar. Wendy, 33, works in medical-equipment sales for G.E.

Kids: Paige Margaret, 4; Kyle Thomas, 18 months.

Home: A five-bedroom, three-bathroom brick house in a gated community on Jefferson Parish’s West Bank, across the Mississippi from the city of New Orleans.

Annual 401 (k) plan contribution: $13,000 (the maximum allowed).

Based on income, kids’ chances of enrolling in a four-year college: 77 percent.

Paige Margaret’s annual preschool tuition: $4,200.

Last vacation taken: “Disney World, like everyone else,” says Wendy.

Number of computers in the home:

Three: Wendy’s work laptop, a three-year-old desktop that the parents share and a hand-me-down from Ron’s parents for the kids.

Based on income, the kids’ chances of battling obesity as teens: Less than 8 percent.

Best moments of the past year: Watching their children interact and learn from each other.

Worst moment of the past year: When Ron’s grandmother died. “It was kind of sudden,” says Ron. “Having to explain to Paige Margaret that her grandmother is not living was hard.”

Biggest hopes for the future: That both children will “have a comfortable life where they really don’t worry about financial strains,” says Wendy, and that they will “be open to different cultures and aware of what life is really like out there.”

Biggest fear: “Violence, terrorism, drugs,” says Wendy. “The general worries. We don’t have any major fears.”

“I was an engineering major, with not a lot of women in my class,” says Wendy. “I don’t want Paige Margaret to be the smartest girl at her all-girls’ school. I want her to be the smartest student. I would also love for the children to find a profession that they love. If it’s a job you love, then you never work a day in your life. And we absolutely want them to go away to college, because it teaches you independence—those survival skills like being able to take care of your checkbook and pay your bills. We just both think it’s important that they learn to manage things on their own.”

JELONDIA CARTER

BALTIMORE, MD. ANNUAL INCOME: $27,104

Occupation: Jelondia, 30, is a hotel administrative assistant and divorced single mom.

Kids: Micah, 6; Jala, 4.

Home: Four-room rented townhouse, $655 per month.

How she gets by: Her ex-husband pays medical bills; she uses state daycare vouchers.

Savings: None.

Kids’ weekly allowances: $2 to $4 for each, depending on what she has.

Serious crime on their Baltimore street last year: 1 rape, 4 aggravated assaults.

Number of computers in the home: None.

Number of TVs: One.

Biggest nonessential purchase in past year: $299 treadmill. She used it to lose 38 lbs.

Best moment of the past year: “My divorce!”

Worst moment of the past year: When she fell several months behind on her rent, daycare and car payments.

Career dream: Going to college and studying film, then starting her own production company.

Biggest hopes for the future: Having her own house with a pool; seeing Micah, who has signed with a child talent agency, succeed in showbiz.

Biggest fear: That Micah, who grew up witnessing physically abusive fights between his parents, “will grow up thinking that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’m praying to God that the cycle is broken.”

“We are poor. I have days when I think I’m going to lose it. But I have to make it better for me and my kids. Just four years ago, when I left my husband for the last time, the kids and I spent a year in a home for domestic-abuse victims. I wanted to get on my feet and knew then I would have to do it all alone. I was like, ‘I’m never going to be able to accomplish all this.’ But I worked my way up from a job in a store to my position at the hotel. I’m taking care of my kids. I’m content with what I have, but I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want more. I want to go to college and study film, then start my own production company to do small projects. I want to live comfortably. I want to be able to wake up one day and plan a trip to Disney. My kids have never been to the beach! I can’t do it today, but I will one day. I won’t stop until I’m satisfied.”

THE LYNCHES

ROCHESTER, MASS. ANNUAL INCOME: $62,000 PLUS BONUSES

Occupations: Jeremy, 37, is a territory manager for Starbucks. Elizabeth, 36, is a stay-at-home mom.

Kids: Isabelle, 4; Bennett, 15 months.

Home: A four-bedroom, two-story Cape-style house on about two acres. They bought it new in 2001 for $399,000.

Number of violent crimes in their neighborhood last year: None.

Last vacation: In February, to Florida, to see relatives in Sarasota and visit Walt Disney World.

Kids’ annual medical costs: Approximately $750.

Setback: Jeremy was out of work for eight months in 2002 after taking a three-month severance package from his $100,000-a-year job as a regional sales manager with Lavazza Premium Coffees.

How they got by: Dipping into their savings, using an inheritance from Jeremy’s father and collecting unemployment insurance. “We didn’t realize how bad the economy was,” Elizabeth says.

Kids’ allowances: None

Number of TVs: Three

Amount they’ve saved for their kids’ education: “Not enough,” says Jeremy.

Biggest nonessential expense last year: Joining the Sippican Tennis Club (initiation fee plus annual dues: $1,990). “You don’t need to be a member of a tennis club,” says Elizabeth, “but we love it.”

Last year’s Christmas presents: A play kitchen, Disney Princess accessories, books, bike helmet and more for Isabelle; a Fisher-Price play garage, toy dump truck, push-ride car and more for Bennett.

Best moments of the past year: When Bennett took his first steps and Isabelle was a flower girl at a family friend’s wedding.

Worst moment of the past year: When Bennett was hospitalized with a double ear infection, pneumonia and high fever.

Biggest hope for the future: “I just want my children to be healthy and happy,” says Elizabeth.

Biggest worry: Paying for their children’s education, including planning for college.

“I loved working when I was an event planner, but I knew I wanted to raise my kids myself” says Elizabeth. “Being a stay-at-home mom isn’t for everyone. People have to know that their lifestyle’s going to change. To me, it’s worth it.

“I feel very lucky about what we have. Especially when Jeremy was out of work, I tried to really appreciate what I have and not constantly wish for more.”

Elizabeth expects to go back to work when the kids are older. “We were toying with the idea of owning a store one day,” says Jeremy. “But right now I’m happy where I am; there’s definitely a future there.”