Thanks largely to the U.S. Federal Reserve, Jeffrey Nelson was able to put up a shotgun as down payment on a car.
Money was tight last year for the school-bus driver and neighborhood constable in Jasper, Alabama, a beaten-down town of 14,000 people. One car had already been repossessed. Medical bills were piling up.
And still, though Nelson’s credit history was an unhappy one, local car dealer Maloy Chrysler Dodge Jeep had no problem arranging a $10,294 loan from Wall Street-backed subprime lender Exeter Finance Corp so Nelson and his wife could buy a charcoal gray 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara.
All the Nelsons had to do was cover the $1,000 down payment. For most of that amount, Maloy accepted Jeffrey’s 12-gauge Mossberg & Sons shotgun, valued at about $700 online.
In the ensuing months, Nelson and his wife divorced, he moved into a mobile home, and, unable to cover mounting debts, he filed for personal bankruptcy. His ex-wife, who assumed responsibility for the $324-a-month car payment, said she will probably file for bankruptcy in a couple of months.
When they got the Exeter loan, Jeffrey, 44 years old, was happy “someone took a chance on us.” Now, he sees it as a contributor to his financial downfall. “Was it feasible? No,” he said.
Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.