For 'working poor', a constant battle to make ends meet
About 29% of the country's residents are considered low-income, as others fall into the category of "working poor". The amorphous category is defined by people who live on the economic edge because of factors like low wages, high costs of living, and seasonal economic swings. These characteristics define life on the Outer Banks. In the second installment of a series, The Hidden Epidemic from the Outer Banks Sentinel, the constant economic struggle for most residents on the Outer Banks is discussed.
There’s a reason that the saying, “one paycheck from disaster,” has meaning on the Outer Banks. Constant economic struggle is a fact of life for many who work here, often at multiple jobs, hoping to stash away enough in the busy season to survive the winter doldrums when the unemployment rate can be twice what it is in the summer.
For those who grow old here, after working in retail or food service, there is no retirement fund waiting for them. Getting by means depending on Social Security and Medicare, and maybe the food bank. And who on the Outer Banks doesn’t know someone who had an illness or accident that left them unable to work? Until Obamacare, most everybody who worked in restaurants and bars and motels had no health insurance. Poverty could befall them in a matter of weeks. That still happens, but less so.
The experience of Cody Craig, a 35-year-old Salvo resident who has lived on the Outer Banks for eight years, illustrates the challenge of financial survival in Dare County.
Born and raised in California, Craig lived the surfer’s dream, spending his youth chasing swells up and down the coast. By age 15, he began modeling for the surfing retailer O’Neill and surfing professionally. He traveled all over Europe, stopping at different countries for a week and teaching kids to surf.
Then he went out on his own, living on sponsorships, competitions and sales of surf photographs. It was on a photo trip in Costa Rica that he met his fiancée, Jaki, who eventually moved to California with him. When Craig’s fiancée became pregnant, she moved back home to Hatteras Island. Craig soon followed. That was just about when the Great Recession struck.
“I got here in July, so it was the middle of summer and it was really tough to get a job then,” Craig recalls. “I thought maybe I could get some construction work, but I wasn’t experienced enough.” He ended up bussing tables at night at Owens' Restaurant in Nags Head, and surfing during the day when he could. It took a year to get promoted to server, which pays better.
“We were going into winter with basically no money,” he says. “It was really tough the first year. We struggled really hard and we had a baby on the way.” The couple was barely able to scrape by. Their daughter wore used baby clothes, and friends and family helped out. When the tourist season started back up, Craig worked cleaning hot tubs and pools, along with waiting tables.
Today, his wife is a server at Lisa’s Pizzeria, and his daughter Barbie is almost seven years old. They try to save as much as they can for a rainy day, so to speak. “We hope for the best and hope nothing huge comes up like a hurricane,” Craig says. “But it always seems like something comes up and I get drained.”
For Craig, the good surfing, as well as his family connection to the island, makes the difficult work environment a worthy trade-off.
The deal is, you sock away enough money when it is rolling in so you can get through the winter. That’s when nearly every business closes on Ocracoke and Hatteras. More businesses remain open on the central beaches, but the few jobs are minimum wage and not worth the cost in gas for island residents to drive an hour.