Dale Brill: Help 45 percent of Floridians living on the economic edge take up the slack

Darian Davis spent five years in prison for selling drugs. While incarcerated, his son was born as his wife waited for his release. Days after he stepped beyond the barbed-wire fencing, now three years ago, a man known in his neighborhood as “Frog” got busy landing work.

Darian worked his first job from 7:30 am to 5 pm as a licensed electrician. Thirty minutes after quitting time, he reported to Popeye’s on Tennessee Street to work in the kitchen until just before 11 pm. He was lucky that his employer allowed him to leave a few minutes early in order to get to his third job installing new lighting in two Publix parking lots.

For nearly four months, energy drinks took the place of sleep. He says they don’t affect him any more as his tolerance for B-complex vitamins and the countless variations of legal stimulants he consumed is too high. The good news is that his Herculean effort to establish himself again in society paid off about the time his body began to rebel. He is grateful for a full-time job as a maintenance and HVAC technician in an apartment complex that pays enough to make room for sleep and family.

Darian is reluctant to talk about what he doesn’t have. He’ll tell you that he created his own problems and he’ll take care of things now the right way. Indeed, he’s no longer battling his own demons but must turn his attention to the daily battles of his environment. His landlord refuses to make the repairs necessary in the home in which he, his fiancé, his son and her two daughters live. Mold is making its way across the girls’ bedroom ceiling as it sags from the heavy moisture. Three of four complexes have denied his rental application. The background check is the clear problem. The landlord who approved the application took his deposit but is now delaying the repairs that include a boarded window until after they move in. Wink. Wink.

Imagine yourself in this situation. You have tenacity and the strongest possible desire to make a better life and take responsibility. What you don’t have is what behavioral economists call slack. Slack comes in many forms but falls in fundamentally two buckets: psychological and financial. Slack is a cushion against mistakes – the kind we all make.

In any given month, unexpected expenses such as tax bills, car repairs, funeral costs and attorney’s fees for family estate issues can put a strain on even those of us who think we’re prepared. I know, I just described my own October 2014.

Your brain is much like a muscle that fatigues when worked too hard. We all experience this. Problems occur most when our brains start thinking less. Unintentional errors can result in financial penalties: speeding tickets, missed work deadlines, forgotten car payment, late credit card payment. The absence of psychological slack necessary to handle the daily stress of everyday compounds the absence of financial slack for those living paycheck to paycheck.

Those of us with the financial resources buy our slack. Dining out takes care of cooking time. Maid service cleans the house. Yard service keeps the lawn looking nice. Childcare eliminates for a few hours the psychological tax that infants naturally put on working parents. Private nursing care helps dual-care givers cope with the elderly. Health insurance limits prescriptions to a ridiculously low co-payment.

What happens to those who can’t buy slack? Thinking about that question is the societal challenge of a generation, particularly for those of us who are tempted to write off the 45 percent of Floridians the United Way of Florida tells us are struggling to make ends meet. Imagine what might happen when policy makers, service providers and neighbors find ways to cut the poor some slack.

Dr. Dale Brill is founder and obsessive thinker for Thinkspot Inc., a Florida-based consulting firm. He has previously served as chief marketing officer for VISIT FLORIDA under Gov. Jeb Bush, director of the Office of Tourism, Trade & Economic Development within the Gov. Charlie Crist administration and president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. You can reach Dale by e-mail at [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

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