Journal Inquirer: Vernon woman to tell story to National Press Club
Though it might be hard to tell today, for several years, Karen Perham-Lippman was struggling. A single mother of three young boys, the Vernon resident was on welfare, relying on various social service programs to make ends meet, and putting food on the table with the assistance of local pantries.
By Zachary F. Vasile
VERNON — Though it might be hard to tell today, for several years, Karen Perham-Lippman was struggling.
A single mother of three young boys, the Vernon resident was on welfare, relying on various social service programs to make ends meet, and putting food on the table with the assistance of local pantries. Although she had a promising background in science, she said she could not find a job that would pay the bills and allow her to get an inch ahead of the next car repair or doctor’s visit.
“It was very difficult,” Perham-Lippman said of that time in her life. “It’s hard to accept help because you have a lot of pride and you don’t want to believe that you’re in that situation, but you are.”
Today, Perham-Lippman’s circumstances look much brighter.
A deputy commissioner at the state Department of Consumer Protection, she is financially stable and pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership from Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Her oldest son Zachary is studying pre-medical biology at Baylor University in Texas, while her twins, Alexander and Nicholas, 13, attend Betances STEM magnet school in Hartford, with plans to attend Pathways Academy of Technology and Design next year. In between those rough years and now, she said, was the intervention of organizations including United Way, which gave her the support and resources she needed to start working her way up.
She plans to share the story of those trying times Thursday, when she will speak before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and discuss the Alice Project, a United Way study calling attention to people who, like Perham-Lippman, have struggled to make ends meet even while employed.
The Alice designation — an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — encompasses a sizeable portion of citizens, Perham-Lippman said, including many who do not appear at first glance to be grappling with poverty.
“Alice covers a lot of people,” she said. “It can be college students, seniors — people who are working but not making ends meet.”
“It’s a huge section of the real Middle America,” she said. “It’s the people who are doing the real work of the country and still can’t reach financial stability.”
Perham-Lippman said one defining characteristic of the Alice group is that they are always one problem away from a downward spiral. Something that a wealthier family could shrug off, like a parking ticket or a vehicle repair, balloons into a devastating financial weight, she said.
The working poor also tend to get trapped in a cycle of pressing demands that short-circuit attempts at long-term planning — and in their desperation, people sometimes lose perspective, she said.
Perham-Lippman said she experienced this jumbled thought process after seeking treatment for a swollen and painful knee. Initially writing it off as bursitis, she ignored the problem until the discomfort finally drove her to the emergency room, where doctors told her that she had a serious bacterial infection.
“They told me that if I didn’t have a procedure to fix this I was going to die,” Perham-Lippman said. “And my first thought was, half-seriously, how dead are we talking about here? It was totally irrational, but it was the only thing I could think about — how much is this going to cost?”
Being aware of available resources can help break that cycle, she noted.
“It’s a difficult call to make,” she said of contacting social services for the first time. “It’s hard because you can’t give your child everything you want for them. But sometimes you don’t have control over things like a divorce, an injury, or a death in the family. This is your way of taking back some control.”
Perham-Lippman said she also wants to use her speech to encourage support for the social safety net that kept her family afloat for a time. That includes volunteering, which she and her family have embraced as a way of giving back.
Aside from acting as a success coach with United Way and sitting on the regional board of Easterseals, Perham-Lippman also serves as an adult mentor to an 11-year-old girl from New Britain through the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters program. That connection gives the young girl a wide range of opportunities and experiences she would not have had in her normal family life, Perham-Lippman said, and allows her to use her own life as a positive example.
“We are a family that was once in poverty and — through a lot of hard work and some luck — were able to get out of that situation,” she said. “Our community supported us, gave us a chance, and changed our story.”
Those who would like to watch Perham-Lippman’s address live online can register at www.webcaster4.com/Webcast/Page/219/25298