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Walk a mile in my shoes
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Michelle Romero coaxes Adrian to try the Indian tacos she made for dinner. Michelle's nephew is eating with the family. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
It's a struggle for people to work their way out of poverty. One of the obstacles they often face is isolation. There's a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots. An innovative program in Duluth is trying to close that divide.

Duluth, Minn. — Eric and Michelle Romero are putting dinner on the table. Michelle cooked Indian tacos for the first time. The two older boys think the tacos are fine, but Michelle needs to persuade 3-year-old Adrian.

The Romeros moved to Duluth from California four years ago. They wanted to get away from their rough neighborhood, and friends who tempted them to get into trouble. Eric Romero has been in prison, and he's trying to turn his life around.

A month ago, the Romeros met Joanne Fay for the first time. Fay is a St. Louis County commissioner. She and the Romeros agreed to participate in the Walk A Mile program. The first step was to have coffee and get acquainted. "She's pretty much in her life where we want to be in our life," says Michelle Romero. "She's got kids in sports, she goes to hockey games, and she's given us some really good support, some good advice."

The Romeros' three boys are just a little younger than Joanne Fay's children. Fay says she's dealt with her own challenges, and she can see the Romeros are determined to make their lives better.

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Image Christmas shopping at the Salvation Army

"This young couple is really trying to get ahead," says Fay. "They've come over a lot of different things. Not that they won't have more bumps in the road, but what they want to know is, 'How do I avoid those bumps, and if I hit one, what do I do after that?'"

To experience first-hand the realities of living on the edge, Joanne Fay put her family on a budget of $1,700 for the month. That's considered the poverty level for a family of five. It's about half what Fay makes as a county commissioner. Fay's husband has a lot of medical expenses, and they need to put money away to pay those bills. So they're used to living on less than their actual income.

Fay and the Romeros also arranged to share a couple of experiences that would help them understand each others' lives.

A few days after they first met over coffee, Joanne Fay tagged along with the Romeros when they went to the Salvation Army to get Christmas presents for their boys. Eric and Michelle picked carefully, and ended up with a big trash bag filled with toys they thought the boys would like.

Joanne Fay watched and made some suggestions. She said her family was adjusting "pretty well" to the tighter budget. One of the expenses they cut out was treats after the kids' hockey games.

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Image A visit to the courthouse

"We were at a sporting event, and my daughter after the game said, 'Can I have a treat?'" Fay recalls. "And I said, 'No, we've made a deal. It's once a week at your home rink, that's it.' And she was pretty good about it. She did bring her bottle of water to the game."

A few days later, Joanne Fay took the Romeros on a tour of the courthouse.

They spent some time in the county recorder's office, checking out the property records of the house they live in. They're planning to buy the house from their landlord. Michelle and Eric Romero learned how much they'd have to save each month to pay taxes on the house.

And Joanne Fay said she was getting more experience at making do with less. Just getting around can present its challenges. Joanne's car broke down. There was enough money in her budget for a new starter, but not enough to have the car towed to the repair shop.

"So we said, 'Well, all right, let's see if we can fix it ourselves.' And my husband fixed it and put a starter in, and we're back on the road again," Fay says. "And that's something we would have done earlier on. But now with your lifestyle changes, you're more tempted just to tow it to the shop."

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Image Learning how to budget

Meanwhile, the Romeros were having car troubles of their own. Eric's car was stolen. The police found it, and towed it to the impound lot.

"It was $180 to get it out of impound and tow it home," Eric Romero says. "We actually had to get a loan for that. So it's like, there's another monthly bill each month. We just do not have that to save for instances like that. We just do not have it."

After Christmas, the Romeros went to Lutheran Social Services for a lesson in budget planning. Joanne Fay sat in on their meeting with a counselor.

That was when Eric Romero was about to lose his telemarketing job. The company was closing its office in Duluth. Eric said he'd spend his free time working on a business plan. He wants to start a landscaping business.

Michelle says the budget planning session was a painful reality check.

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Image Watching TV

"As much as you don't want to face how much you are low-income, and because of the past and where we came from, we have a lot of debt," Michelle says. "We talk about the things we want to do, and how much we'd like to put away to reserve for, oh, you know, when your car breaks down. We don't think about that. Those are the things that we're not able to do at this point."

Michelle says she's never been able to save money before, so it's a new habit she needs to learn.

The counselor told the Romeros they would need $1,200 more in income per month to afford to buy the house. And they won't have that until Eric starts working again.

Michelle is a medical assistant. She makes $11 an hour. But she only works part time, and she owes $15,000 for her training.

She says sometimes she gets frustrated that after the work and expense of getting her certification, she isn't better off financially.

"I've achieved what I wanted to achieve, but I haven't gone far enough," says Michelle. "So I'm going to be going into the RN (registered nurse) program, even if I have to dig deeper into debt. One way or another I'm going to get my head totally above water, and I'm going to be self-sufficient."

The Romeros are finding out that getting off welfare is a tricky business. They get medical assistance, but they don't qualify for food stamps anymore. And their day care fee is set on a sliding scale, so when their income goes up, they have to pay more.

That's the kind of thing Joanne Fay wanted to learn about in the Walk A Mile program. Fay also discovered the food stamp program may not be flexible enough for today's working families.

"In this day and age when you're on the go-go-go, and especially if you're a young couple, both of you working two different jobs, the odds are you're going to stop at McDonalds," says Fay. "And they don't take food stamps, so you have to have that cash. But if you're trying to set a budget and really have your goals straight, you're traveling with the peanut butter and jelly in your car."

Joanne Fay says she won't forget her experience of living on the edge of poverty as she makes decisions for St. Louis County. Because of the state budget deficit, she's likely to find herself voting for cuts in county services. She says she expects churches, non-profits, and neighbors to help each other more than ever.

The Walk a Mile program ended in early January, but Joanne Fay and the Romeros plan to continue their friendship. They both say they have more to learn from each other.

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