By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 10/15/2007 6:10:49 AM ET 2007-10-15T10:10:49

In September, Gut Check America readers voted the middle-class economic squeeze as the most-pressing issue facing America. This month, we profile three families who wrote in to share their stories.

Olga Suarez is a construction project manager, not a social scientist, but she sees three socioeconomic classes in the Miami area: “You’re either rich or you’re poor or you’re screwed.”

Suarez, a 35-year-old single mother, says she’s in that third category despite a $71,000-plus annual income that places her squarely in the U.S. middle class in the eyes of most economists and far above the Miami-Dade metro area median family income of $45,200.

But by the time she pays her rent, car loan, utilities, insurance and puts a little food on the table and gas in the tank, she’s in the red or very close to it every month.

“I work in a guy’s industry and by all standards I should be OK, making what I make,” she says. “Where is it? The numbers just don’t add up.”

Her income includes her salary and child support for her youngest son from her second marriage, 4-year-old Ryan. The family also receives Social Security survivor benefits for eldest son Kevin, 15, and daughter Annya, 12, whose father, Suarez’s first husband, died last year.

She says the key factor in her financial struggle is her determination to raise her kids in a safe place and keep them in schools where they can associate with high academic achievers.

On the first account, the family has settled into a three-bedroom, pink stucco duplex in Sweetwater, nestled in Miami’s steamy, crowded suburbs near Florida’s Turnpike and Highway 836. The $1,650 a month rent is steeper than other places she might live, and seemingly unwarranted by the concrete, asphalt and chain-link motif of the neighborhood.

But Sweetwater, with a population of about 15,000, has a crime rate that’s less than half the national average. “The cops in this town are bored,” Suarez says.

On the second account, she says she pleaded with administrators to keep her kids at the public schools they attended before she split with Ryan’s father earlier this year, forcing her to move. While she’s delighted she was able to do that, she must now pay about $150 a month in private bus fare for the older kids.

A laundry list of school supplies
And along with the excellent reputation of the schools that Kevin and Annya attend come additional costs: mandatory uniforms and a list of supplies that parents must provide for each child, ranging from hand-sanitizer to “dry” markers and erasers. “Schools in Miami-Dade County don't even provide tissue paper,” she says.

She says the payoff from her choices is clear: Kevin, who carries a GPA above 3.9, has been in gifted programs for years and already has won a $10,000 college scholarship in a history competition. Annya also is in advanced classes. “My kids are excellent kids,” Suarez says proudly. “I want to keep them good.”

If she wasn’t as careful in her selection of neighborhood and schools, Suarez believes, the children would be surrounded by kids “with their pants down around their waist and weird hairdos.” Instead, Kevin and Annya’s friends are also academic standouts from nice homes, she says. Kevin is currently in the middle of rehearsals to take part in a classmate’s quinceañera, a traditional Latino celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday.

But such activities require tough decisions. “You have to make choices like, ‘Do I not pay my lights so he can go to a fifteens party?’” And Suarez is now wondering how she will foot the bill when her own daughter turns 15.

Crystal L. Lauderdale for msnbc.com
Doting mom: When Olga Suarez stopped for groceries, son Ryan, 4, got a balloon.
Like all parents, Suarez would like to reward her kids with occasional evenings out and activities, but just a visit to the bowling alley can run more than $100. “Movies are $10 per person. That’s $40 plus whatever you eat and drink. It’s $80 and you just watch the movie.”

“It’s Miami,” says Suarez. “I guess it comes with the ZIP Code. … They wanted to put it so much on the map as a tourist destination that we’re screwed.”

The family did take a three-day vacation over the summer to Sea World and Universal Studios in Orlando, but Suarez had to float most of it on credit cards.

Rent consumes a third of budget
In addition to the nearly $20,000 a year she pays in rent, very close to a third of her take-home pay, Suarez spends $3,000 a year on auto insurance, more than $3,500 for health insurance (which she expects will double after her divorce becomes final) and $3,500 for utilities.  

She has managed to avoid racking up large credit-card debts, but she owes about $1,700 on new furniture and she has an $11,000 balance on a line of credit on a condominium that she owns in partnership with her dad.

The condo, mostly paid for, is expected to provide college funds for the kids. And seeing her ex-husband die from cancer at a young age prompted her to buy a substantial life insurance policy on herself so that her kids would be taken care of if something happens to her. But she has no retirement savings.

Her kids have the things that most of their friends have -- MP3 players and computers and TVs in their rooms. But Olga says they are the result of shrewd shopping strategies and lay-away plans. She’ll start soon to save $10 here and $20 here there for her kids’ Christmas presents. For her, there are no trips to the hairdresser or nail shop or clothes-shopping sprees, only the occasional happy hour drink with her best friend.

But Suarez wonders how long she can keep juggling and doesn’t see any obvious answers to her situation. She changed employers in June from one in downtown Miami to one nearby that allows her to get the kids off to school each day and stop by during lunch if they are at home. But it’s a decision that limits career – and salary – options.

She does believe rent should be controlled or that the government ought to consider tax deductions or credits for renters, like the subsidies given to homeowners. And it would help if schools provided transportation at no cost to parents, she says.

Otherwise, she wonders, “Do I have to get together with a guy because of money? Do I have to settle down in a bad neighborhood?

“I don’t mind being poor, I really don’t. I don’t have an issue with that. What I have an issue with is they make it so hard for your kids not to be a statistic.”

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