News Article Details

Passion vs. profit: Financial struggles loom for Wisconsin residents who work to serve others

Post-Crescent - 3/15/2019

March 15--APPLETON -- Aspiring special education teacher Christina McCarty works three jobs to avoid a future of financial insecurity.

The 20-year-old -- who works as a full-time special education paraprofessional, a part-time barista at Copper Rock Coffee and an assistant in therapy line treatment sessions with an autistic patient -- is saving money to go to college, knowing her career ambitions aren't in a particularly lucrative field.

"Becoming a teacher, I'm never going to be rich," McCarty said. "I'm never going to make a ton of money doing that."

The national average salary for a special education teacher fell just under $59,000 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that's with years of experience. An entry-level position averages slightly above $36,000.

Given those salary expectations, McCarty said she would rather build up her work experience and wait to get her degree -- instead of taking out student loans that she would struggle to pay back.

"I don't want to be 22 years old and have as much debt as if I bought a house or more," she said. "I didn't want that for my life. I didn't want to be paying that off for 10 years after I was done with college ... If I have to wait for the degree, then that's fine."

Occupational fields like education, social work and advocacy nonprofits are among some of the lowest-paying career choices.

So, why do people continue to pursue these career paths, and at what cost are the financial burdens worth it?

For McCarty, it's about being part of a movement that's bigger than herself, she said.

"If you look at the history of the Disability Rights movement ... (it's) just horrific and now that we're at a point that society is finally recognizing that these people are people, that they have worth, that it's important for them to be integrated into our society, I just feel really lucky that I get to be on the practical end of that," she said. "I get to make that happen. I get to push them forward. It's why I get up in the morning to go to work. I adore it. I live for it."

Feeling of falling behind

Lauren Moen, 26, has a degree in sociology and social work. She's the shelter manager at Pillars Adult Shelter and has been there since it was the Fox Valley Warming Shelter.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the national average salary for a social worker is a little under $48,000, but Moen started out making about $35,000. In addition to her main job, she waited tables on weekends and was still under her parents' health insurance.

"At one point in time, I was working every day of the week," Moen said.

"I've always struggled," she said. "My student loans are $300 a month. When you're completely independent and you live alone, even a salary job doesn't go very far sometimes. I've worked side jobs. I've waitressed on Saturdays and Sundays as well to make ends meet."

As the shelter manager, Moen is on call 24/7. She said helping people motivates her to stay in her field, despite the financial struggles it can bring.

"A lot of these people are at the worst point in their life," Moen said. "Just going about helping them and just seeing the small successes or just seeing them overcome a health issue or getting a job and coming through the shelter doors and just being so excited to tell me and the staff ... just seeing the hope reinstalled in peoples' lives makes every part of it worth it."

Marleigh Fiedler, 25, also works at Pillars as a shelter client advocate and is a former employee of an environmental nonprofit.

"Starting out, it was definitely hard for me to make sure that all of my bills were being paid on time," she said. "I definitely had to work on budgeting."

Fiedler said her job is about passion, first and foremost.

"I've always been very oriented with helping people and I think because of my passion for it, it outweighs the income aspect of it just because we're changing lives every day, we're helping people," she said.

Savings emergency

The Federal Reserve Board reports four in 10 Americans would be unable to cover a $400 emergency or unexpected payment without borrowing or selling a belonging. But, when you're already paying back loans and living paycheck to paycheck, how can workers in less lucrative careers manage their savings?

"I would love to have more money saved," Moen said. "It's always easier said than done. One bad car repair or one extra medical bill and you're right back to Square 1. That is very nerve-wracking."

Connie Raether, a retired social worker who had worked at the warming shelter, said she sees how hard it is for young people starting out in her field.

"A lot of people have altruistic motives, but altruism doesn't put food on the table," Raether said. "Wages for people have not kept up with the cost of living ... the staff here who are trying to pay back student loans and live off $11 an hour, how would you save?"

Raether said she is concerned about younger workers who might not have retirement benefits to fall back on.

"(My generation) banked on Social Security," she said. "Now, I wouldn't bank on it at all."

Kathryn Edwards, an associate economist at the RAND Corporation, said Social Security's long-term shortfall has been an issue for nearly 30 years. She said the solution relies on Congress's ability to amend the Social Security Act to increase revenues and decrease expenditures.

If it doesn't, Social Security could only pay out 79 percent of scheduled benefits by 2034 and all benefits would be permanently reduced by 21 percent.

McCarty, 20, is already planning as if she won't have any help with retirement.

"I'm not going to rely on Social Security," McCarty said. "Mentally, I'm just going to prepare myself as if it's not going to be there because it probably won't be. By the time we get there, it's going to run out."

Financial advice

Clifford Robb, an associate professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said there are ways to overcome financial challenges entry-level employees might face.

"A lot of times nowadays, the biggest challenge is that many people are starting out with some debt which wasn't always the case," Robb said. "If you're coming out with that, you're already a little bit behind in the sense that you have debt to repay, that's a challenge especially when you're going into a field that's a little bit less lucrative."

There are resources to help those in altruistic fields. People can look into federal loan forgiveness or assistance programs.

Robb said those entering the job market for the first time should keep long-term savings at the forefront of managing their money.

"If there's an employer match (for a retirement or 401k plan), always meet that," he said. "Don't leave that money on the table."

Even if an employer doesn't offer a retirement plan, Robb suggests automating a portion of an earned paycheck to go into a personal retirement or emergency savings fund.

"It's really important to help people feel empowered on the front end," Robb said. "So, before you graduate, think about what are the types of programs that might be available."

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(c)2019 The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wis.)

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