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Living on the Edge: Hartford Family Grapples With Challenges of the ‘Working Poor’

  • Nancy Peterson pauses in her kitchen between playing with her son, Justin, and taking care of her husband, Robert, who wasn't feeling well, in Hartford, Vt., on May 7, 2014. Peterson, who works full time at Walmart in West Lebanon, N.H., provides the only income for her family.  (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Nancy Peterson pauses in her kitchen between playing with her son, Justin, and taking care of her husband, Robert, who wasn't feeling well, in Hartford, Vt., on May 7, 2014. Peterson, who works full time at Walmart in West Lebanon, N.H., provides the only income for her family. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robert Peterson reaches over Bill Sharp, of Lebanon, N.H., to hand his wife, Nancy, silverware while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons eat at the free dinners four oir five times a week to save money on groceries. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robert Peterson reaches over Bill Sharp, of Lebanon, N.H., to hand his wife, Nancy, silverware while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons eat at the free dinners four oir five times a week to save money on groceries. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nancy Peterson looks over schoolwork with her son, Justin, in their kitchen shortly after he came home from school in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons left a tight network of friends and family in Michigan to move to Vermont, citing the public education system as the impetus for their move.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Nancy Peterson looks over schoolwork with her son, Justin, in their kitchen shortly after he came home from school in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons left a tight network of friends and family in Michigan to move to Vermont, citing the public education system as the impetus for their move.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robert Peterson texts a friend to ask for a ride while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons share a car and give many friends rides who are unable to drive, so much coordination is needed. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robert Peterson texts a friend to ask for a ride while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons share a car and give many friends rides who are unable to drive, so much coordination is needed.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nancy Peterson waits for a receipt to print for a customer at the returns desk at Walmart, where she works full time, in West Lebanon, N.H., on Feb 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Nancy Peterson waits for a receipt to print for a customer at the returns desk at Walmart, where she works full time, in West Lebanon, N.H., on Feb 26, 2014.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robert Peterson watches his wife, Nancy, as she speaks with a SSI represntitive regarding paperwork for their son, Justin, who receives SSI benefits due to his mild cerebal palsy at their home in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons spend much of their spare time applying for benefits, managing their health care, and budgeting. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Robert Peterson watches his wife, Nancy, as she speaks with a SSI represntitive regarding paperwork for their son, Justin, who receives SSI benefits due to his mild cerebal palsy at their home in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons spend much of their spare time applying for benefits, managing their health care, and budgeting.
    (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nancy Peterson pauses in her kitchen between playing with her son, Justin, and taking care of her husband, Robert, who wasn't feeling well, in Hartford, Vt., on May 7, 2014. Peterson, who works full time at Walmart in West Lebanon, N.H., provides the only income for her family.  (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robert Peterson reaches over Bill Sharp, of Lebanon, N.H., to hand his wife, Nancy, silverware while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons eat at the free dinners four oir five times a week to save money on groceries. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Nancy Peterson looks over schoolwork with her son, Justin, in their kitchen shortly after he came home from school in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons left a tight network of friends and family in Michigan to move to Vermont, citing the public education system as the impetus for their move.<br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robert Peterson texts a friend to ask for a ride while eating at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb 25, 2014. The Petersons share a car and give many friends rides who are unable to drive, so much coordination is needed. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Nancy Peterson waits for a receipt to print for a customer at the returns desk at Walmart, where she works full time, in West Lebanon, N.H., on Feb 26, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Robert Peterson watches his wife, Nancy, as she speaks with a SSI represntitive regarding paperwork for their son, Justin, who receives SSI benefits due to his mild cerebal palsy at their home in Hartford, Vt., on March 28, 2014. The Petersons spend much of their spare time applying for benefits, managing their health care, and budgeting. <br/>(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Hartford Village — Twenty-six years ago, Nancy and Robert Peterson were married in a swirl of white, Nancy in a fitted lace gown with a sweetheart neckline and a floor-length veil, Robert in a shiny white tuxedo, his reddish blond hair cut in a rock star mullet. On the dance floor, she swooned into him, gazing up at him, and he gazed down at her with equal intensity.

Before their marriage, when the minister asked them what they were going to live on after they wed, they answered: Love.

Nancy Peterson recounts this with the bone-dry delivery of a stand-up comic, waiting for the punch line to sink in.

The Petersons, and their 15-year-old son, Justin, live in a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a building in Hartford Village, where they’ve lived since 2010. They have weathered illness, deaths in the family, disease, the premature birth of their son and the health complications that arose as a result.

In the nine years before they found their Hartford Village apartment, they moved eight times. They’ve gotten into financial trouble and pulled themselves out. They’ve lived on two incomes, and now live on one. Sometimes they are eligible for government assistance, sometimes not. They watch the money go out almost as soon as it comes in.

Robert Peterson has a powerful, stocky build and his hair is still reddish. For Valentine’s Day last year, using money from their tax refund, he bought them matching wedding bands from Kay Jewelers, because they’d never had them. He likes to say his wife keeps him standing, that she takes care of him first, and herself second. “She’s the one who knows me the best.”

With short blond hair and glasses, Nancy Peterson has a steady, impassive gaze. She has a quiet, even wary watchfulness on the surface, and a no-nonsense wit. One evening she answers the telephone “city zoo.” In her late 40s, she seems to have grown a shell to armor herself against the slings and arrows that life routinely metes out.

She describes their financial situation this way: “If we didn’t have to eat or wear clothes we’d be great.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

In his first State of the Union speech, in January 1964, Johnson declared, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Congress passed landmark legislation that led to Medicaid and Social Security, which significantly reduced poverty among the elderly. But other measurements of the poverty index show the country lost ground after the start of the global recession in late 2007.

Although the economy has slowly rebounded, a study released last year by the Department of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the most significant improvement has been felt at the top of the economic ladder. From 2009 to 2012, with some fluctuations, the top 1 percent saw their incomes grow by 31.4 percent, while the remaining 99 percent had incomes that grew by 0.4 percent.

And after adjusting for inflation, according to a Census Bureau report from 2012, median household income in the U.S. actually dropped 1.5 percent in 2011 from the previous year, to $50,054. That’s an 8.1 percent decrease from 2007, and an 8.9 percent decrease from the peak in 1999, which seems to suggest that the recession exacerbated the problem of already stagnating wages.

The federal poverty rate is 15 percent of the U.S. population, or 46.2 million people. According to the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, the poverty rate in 2010 was the highest it had been since 1993. From 1993 to 2000, the poverty rate fell each year, reaching 11.3 percent in 2000.

The Petersons are what some local social service agencies call the “working poor,” although Nancy Peterson calls themselves “middle-class poor.”

Steve Geller, director of Southeastern Vermont Community Action in Westminster, Vt., calls the term “working poor” an “oxymoron — like jumbo shrimp. The definition of work is to bring in income from your labor that enables you not to be impoverished.”

For many families, including the Petersons, this is no longer the case.

After the Great Recession, more Americans slipped over the edge — from a middle-class existence, buoyed by faith in a rising tide of national prosperity, to a life of fighting just to tread water. The reasons are complex and not easily summarized in a few sentences.

But there are a few constants: Wages have not kept pace with the cost of living and the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has not been increased since 2009, although Vermont’s rate stands at $8.73 an hour. New Hampshire’s minimum wage is at the federal level.

And the kinds of full-time jobs in the retail, manufacturing and service sectors that people once relied on have been replaced, in many cases, by lower-wage, part-time, often short-lived jobs.

“The churn in low-wage jobs isn’t terribly cost-effective for employers, and certainly not good for folks trying to piece together enough income,” said Sara Kobylenski, executive director of The Haven in White River Junction.

“We’ve failed to raise the minimum wage for decades without taking the cost of living into account,” Geller said. “People say the minimum wage is meaningless, it’s no longer reflective of what its original purpose was, to help somebody get by. It’s no longer even close to that. Most of the federal assistance programs now use a percentage above the poverty level to define eligibility.”

The Petersons’ financial situation is rather like a house of cards. They try to build the house as stoutly as they can, but if something gives way, if a wind blows through, if there’s an accident or a miscalculation, it can all come tumbling down. For such families, said Geller, “every day is a problem to be solved, a crisis to be overcome.”

“You try to get ahead. But God forbid your car should break down,” Peterson said.

The Petersons’ building, which now houses four apartments, was once a barn. The couple share a small bedroom that overlooks a back street. The apartment’s insulation is spotty and this winter they used a space heater to compensate for the drafts.

Justin has his own room. Born prematurely, he has a mild case of cerebral palsy as a result, as well as some developmental and psychological issues, including ADHD and anxiety, for which he takes five medications daily. He also has sensory issues, meaning that some textures and tastes are distasteful to him. As a child, he hated walking on grass, didn’t like things touching his skin and he still has very pronounced food likes and dislikes.

An eighth-grader at Hartford Middle School, he has brilliant blue eyes, his father’s reddish hair and, like many adolescents, swings between know-it-allness and needy affection. One evening he wraps his arms tight around his mother’s neck and presses his face against hers and they rock back and forth in unison.

They have a roommate, Chris O’Donnell, who is in his 30s and has lived with them since 2010. He’s an older brother of sorts to Justin, takes him places and plays games with him. There is a kitchen and, at the back, a living room. There is one bathroom.

A hallway also serves as an office, with file cabinets, book shelves and two computers. A mastodon of a heater that looks to be from the 1970s or earlier occasionally steams and growls. Robert Peterson has been making repairs to the apartment and insulating where necessary. “I can do things to help improve the place,” he said.

His biological mother, Jane DeLue, moved in before Christmas for health reasons, which required a shuffling of the sleeping arrangements. The family has not yet found a facility where she could afford to live.

DeLue took the room O’Donnell had been sleeping in, and O’Donnell moved to a couch in the living room. One afternoon, DeLue woke from a nap and came out of her bedroom into the kitchen wearing a faded, smocked flannel nightgown, like a little girl’s, that reached to her ankles. She is somewhat frail. “Excuse me, can I get in the fridge?” she asked, trying to squeeze by Nancy, who is sitting in a chair that backs up nearly against its door.

“You won’t fit in the fridge,” Peterson said, deadpan, moving her chair to allow DeLue to get by. DeLue smiles tentatively.

The family lives on the earnings from Nancy Peterson’s job working at the service desk at Walmart in West Lebanon. Her annual salary is about $25,000, her monthly take-home pay is close to $2,000 and her hourly wage is around $13.

The federal government’s current poverty threshold for a household of three is $19,790. Because Nancy Peterson’s annual salary is $25,000, the Petersons exceed the poverty threshold by some $5,000. They make too much to qualify consistently for federal or state aid, but are not making enough money to pay their bills with ease.

“I’m going down this never-ending road of, where am I getting the money from?” said Nancy Peterson.

They have used local food shelves when needed, and apply yearly for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, which they receive randomly — some months yes, some months no, depending on the Supplemental Security Income that Justin receives.

Peterson describes the bind they find themselves in when it comes to qualifying for assistance: “You’re on the verge of, ‘You can make it if … but you don’t get any because …’ ”

In September 2008, the number of people receiving food stamps in Vermont was 58,464, said Angela Smith-Dieng, advocacy manager for Hunger Free Vermont in South Burlington. By last fall, that number was 100,087. In a state where the population hovers at 600,000, one in six people receive food assistance.

In 2008, in New Hampshire, 58,662 people received food stamp assistance — a 4.5 percent participation rate, said Terry Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance for the state Department of Health and Human Services. The most recent Census numbers, for 2012, show that 117,744 people, out of a population of 1.3 million, received food stamps, an 8.9 percent participation rate — nearly double the rate of six years ago.

Peterson has a letter from 3SquaresVT, the Vermont food assistance program. “Your income is less than the rules allow but it is too high to get any benefits,” it says. No matter how many times Peterson reads that sentence, it still doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes a check for $20 shows up, without explanation. “You can buy a meal, or maybe a week of food depending on what you eat,” she said.

Robert Peterson, who has both diabetes and epilepsy, has applied for and been denied disability payments two times, and is waiting to hear whether he will be approved on his third try. It’s been some time since he’s heard from his Massachusetts lawyer, whom he found on the Internet.

“SSI is very difficult to get,” said Geller of Southeastern Vermont Community Action. “It becomes a little disruption in (people’s) lives to even apply.”

“I haven’t worked since 2009,” Robert Peterson said. “I have to make sure I don’t have to worry about having seizures.” He also stays home to keep an eye on Justin. “It all came down to what’s better for the kid, and since I wasn’t working, I had more time to spend with him.”

Every month the Petersons run through the calculus of what they can afford to pay.

Their rent is around $850 a month, which does not include utilities. Chris O’Donnell pays the landlord directly, about $100 a month. Electricity costs between $150 and $200 a month. They pay $112 a month for heat year-round, which means they pay in the summer when it is not needed, but also are paying less in the winter when heating bills are higher. This winter they applied for and received a one-time payment of $350 for fuel assistance.

The cable bill, which includes telephone and Internet, is $180 a month. They own two computers: one they bought at Staples and the other was given to Justin by a friend.

They have one car, a used 2008 Dodge Caravan with more than 100,000 miles on it that they bought two years ago through a company called Credit Angel. The payment averages about $400 monthly. There is the price of gas to contend with. They spend about $350 per month, although friends occasionally give them gas vouchers offered by area churches.

Nancy Peterson estimates that she spends around $400 a month on food for Justin and themselves; to buy enough food to include evening meals might cost another $400, money they rarely have. To save money, the couple eat their evening meals four to five times a week at the Listen Community Dinners in White River Junction. Because Justin has an aversion to anything but such soft foods as pasta, yogurt and apple sauce, he rarely accompanies them.

Nancy Peterson shops at the Hannaford supermarket in West Lebanon because she finds the prices for food, particularly sugar-free food, are lower. “Take sugar out of food and it costs twice the price,” she said.

They have no credit cards. Early in their marriage when they were young, naive and not making much beyond the minimum wage, they had 10 credit cards which mired them in $10,000 of debt that took them years to pay off. They have both a savings account and a checking account, but they withdraw funds with a debit card rather than writing checks, to prevent overdrafts.

On the plus side of the ledger, they receive between $680 and $690 in SSI monthly payments because of Justin’s cerebral palsy.

And they had a stroke of luck this winter when it came to their health insurance, which had been divided between Medicaid and Nancy Peterson’s Walmart policy: They are now all covered by Medicaid, which covers the $2,000 it costs every month to buy the 10 medications Robert Peterson takes daily. Nancy takes medications for cholesterol and chronic insomnia; and Justin takes five medications to treat his anxiety and ADHD.

Total monthly income: around $2,680. (Nancy Peterson also contributes to a 401(k) account through work, and Walmart matches her contribution.)

Monthly expenses: $2,442, give or take. This leaves roughly $240, some of which goes into the savings account, and some of which is reserved for the occasional meal out or a treat. There is almost no cushion to soften any financial blows that might occur.

A recent analysis in Th e New York Times of how American middle-class incomes compare to other Western democracies found that the U.S., which for decades led the pack, has fallen behind. In 2010, Canada tied with the U.S. for median income. Th e analysis suggests that it has probably pulled ahead.

Another unenviable statistic is that while upper-class income continues to hold steady and even increase, income growth for the middle class and poor in this country is slowing.

“Life has changed dramatically in the last 15 years,” said Merilynn Bourne, executive director at Listen Community Services in Lebanon. “If the cost of housing, heat and gasoline and electricity continue to spiral up as they have been, it’s going to be tougher and tougher for people,” Bourne said. “They use that credit card, they use those payday loans, they use those title loans. This is loan-sharking. If you’re at the bottom of the scale the pressure is building and building, and they’re getting squashed.”

By the summer of 2010, the staff at The Haven was seeing a steady stream of people asking for help, said Kobylenski, the shelter’s executive director. “The level of desperation of folks and complexity of their stories became overwhelming to people who were helping to serve them.”

To meet the increased demand The Haven hired two full-time case managers who meet with between six and 16 people a day to determine how to help them get access to the services they need.

“These are the stories again and again and again: They were getting by and then one thing tipped the balance in their household,” Kobylenski said. “The oil bill could be bigger than expected, or the car broke down, or they did OK with the fuel bill but that’s because they plugged in their electric heater. … Or there’s a sick child, and then in order to meet the needs of the child, they don’t go to work and if they don’t go to work they don’t get paid.”

In the last year, Kobylenski said, some 4,500 people have been seen by the case managers at The Haven.

“There are agencies to help most people who need it,” said Gianessa Piro, a family services worker at Southeastern Vermont Community Action in White River Junction. “But it’s hard for people who are ‘over income.’ Most of the programs we run have to go through income verification.” While such verification is necessary to weed out people who want to game the system, it doesn’t always take into account an emergency, a health crisis or job loss that throws someone off track.

“Something happened to a person in the last 30 days that makes it hard suddenly. Just because they don’t qualify doesn’t mean they’re not in a crisis,” Piro said.

One of the difficulties a family like the Petersons faces is the high cost of living in the Upper Valley, coupled with a lack of affordable housing. Kobylenski pointed to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition that found that to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Vermont a person would need to make a minimum hourly wage of $19.36; and in New Hampshire a wage of $20.18.

“Two jobs at $9.50 an hour isn’t going to cut it,” Kobylenski said.

To find affordable housing, Kobylenski said, people look farther away from the Upper Valley’s core towns of Lebanon, Hanover and Hartford, often at “less attractive housing, but that housing tends to have higher heating costs, and there are higher transportation costs. You’re balancing all of these different costs in order to get by.”

The working poor often find themselves in another bind born of a bureaucratic Catch-22. Geller and other service providers call it the “benefits cliff.”

If the goal of service agencies, and the federal and state governments, is to get people off such benefits as housing, fuel or food subsidies and back into the job market, what happens when they land a job with an income that isn’t sufficient to really support them?

“Families are penalized when they start to bring in income of their own,” Geller said. “They start to lose benefits. By working they are actually in a worse situation.”

If their income goes over an eligibility threshold — even by $1 — they start to see immediate cuts in benefits before they have experienced a noticeable improvement in their situation. “Then people will quit jobs to get benefits and then they’re teetering again,” Kobylenski said. She advocates a graduated diminishing of benefits so that “people keep moving forward and not drop back.”

Indeed, something like this happened to the Petersons. Before moving to Hartford, they lived in Hartland. Both were working at Walmart then, but on different shifts. Because they could afford only one car, they drove each other back and forth.

Nancy had to be at work at 5 a.m., so Robert drove her there. But because they couldn’t leave Justin at home alone, Robert had to bring Justin with him. Because Justin began school in Hartford between 7:30 and 8 a.m., and they lived in Hartland, they slept in the car until it was time to take him to school. At night, when Nancy had to pick up Robert from his shift, she would take Justin with her.

“We were dragging (him) out at 10:30 at night while he was still going to school,” Nancy Peterson said.

Between them they earned about $50,000. But the joint incomes made Justin ineligible for SSI benefits, and more to the point, who would take care of him when they had overlapping shifts? So when Robert was let go from his job in 2009 for a minor infraction (he answered his cellphone while he was working, which violated store policy), they made the decision that it was best for him to stay home with Justin.

Nancy Marsh Peterson grew up in Manistee, a town of some 6,000 people on Lake Michigan. A photograph of the lake, silvery and vast, is her computer’s screen saver. Her mother and older sister still live there.

Robert Peterson’s road to Manistee began in Burlington, where he was born in 1966 to Jane DeLue . He was adopted at the age of 3 months by Donald and Dorothy Peterson, and spent part of his childhood in South Royalton, where Dorothy Peterson grew up. Donald Peterson, a World War II veteran and lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, moved the family to South Carolina in 1974, and in 1977 they moved from South Carolina to Manistee. Robert Peterson wears his late father’s World War II military dog tags around his neck as a show of respect. His adoptive mother and two sisters are still in Michigan.

Because of the medications he takes, Peterson’s eyes sometimes seem unfocused, and his speech slows. He began having seizures as a child, and later discovered, when he and his biological mother finally met as adults in 1997, that DeLue had herself experienced seizures when she was pregnant with him.

Peterson was a child when his epilepsy was diagnosed. The Depakote and some other medications he took over the years effectively controlled the disease but also contributed to the malfunctioning of his pancreas.

After a severe case of pancreatitis hospitalized him in 2010, doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center advised him to eliminate the Depakote, and switched him to other medications. While they fine-tuned the medication, trying to get the correct dosage, he experienced more seizures.

In August of last year, Peterson suffered a grand mal seizure. He remembers opening the apartment’s back door, which leads to a porch — and that’s all he remembers. When he collapsed he fell over a bike that was on the porch. It flipped over onto him, fracturing three vertebrae in his neck.

He now wears a medical alert button, and has changed to medication that does not affect the functioning of his pancreas. He is treated at DHMC for both diabetes and epilepsy, and has been put on a nutrition and diet plan for the diabetes.

His diabetes wasn’t diagnosed until 1990. After eating chocolate chip cookies, he experienced severe stomach pain and had to go to the emergency room at a hospital in Manistee. When he got an IV drip that included glucose, he passed out; doctors tested his blood sugar and then diagnosed his diabetes. Because he’d held jobs that didn’t offer health insurance, he said, “I didn’t know what my problems were. If I’d had insurance back then I might have been able to do more,” he said.

The couple met in high school. Nancy Peterson’s father, David Marsh, had multiple sclerosis and couldn’t work. She cared for him when she came home from school while her mother, Barbara, worked at a local Woolworth’s. “I wasn’t a social person in school,” Nancy Peterson said. “My life was my Dad. I didn’t have another life until I met Robert.”

She was 17. He was 15, and smitten. “I said I’m going to marry that girl someday. I just had this hunch,” Robert Peterson said. On the day before the school’s homecoming dance, he asked her to go with him as his date.

“I couldn’t really believe that anybody had asked me to do anything,” Nancy Peterson recalled. “After school I went home and said, I got asked to the homecoming dance. My Dad said OK, but I have to meet him.”

She went upstairs to her room while her father, in his wheelchair, interviewed Robert as to his intentions. When her father wanted to call a member of the family, he would push a buzzer that would sound through the house. After he’d finished talking to Robert, Nancy heard the buzzer sound. When she came downstairs, she said, “the question on my face was, ‘Can I go?’ His answer was, ‘You can go anywhere in the world with him.’ ”

They were together almost immediately after that. But only a year later, Nancy Peterson’s father died at age 43 from encephalitis, which devastated the family. She and Robert married; she was 23 and he was 21. Both were awarded associate degrees — his in computers, hers in accounting and computers — from West Shore Community College in nearby Scottville. Mich. Nancy had thought about going on for more education but at the time couldn’t get any more financial aid.

They tried for years to have children. Nancy had a miscarriage before becoming pregnant with Justin when she was 33. The pregnancy was complicated by the fact that she went into labor at just 18 weeks because her cervix was not strong enough. She had an emergency cerclage to stitch up the cervical opening, otherwise “he would have just fallen out,” she said.

Justin was born at 29 weeks, weighing nearly three pounds. He’d experienced a brain bleed after birth, and was in intensive care for two months. It was clear early on that there were developmental delays, as well as some physiological problems, including acid reflux and sensory issues.

When Justin was 2, the couple decided to move to the Upper Valley, because Robert Peterson had spent part of his childhood here, and it was where his biological mother lived. By far the most important factor in their deliberations, however, was that DeLue had told the couple that the schools in Vermont were good.

The public schools in Michigan, they felt, were underfunded and in poor shape. After researching online and learning that Vermont was recognized for the resources it offered students with developmental delays, they decided to leave Michigan.

It was the right thing to do, but that didn’t make the separation easier. When they left in 2001 it was a wrenching tearing away from everything and everybody they knew, and a severing of the support system of friends and family who helped look after Justin. After going home for a visit, the trip back to Vermont only underscored what they’d left behind.

“It took us quite a while not to cry our eyes out across Michigan,” Nancy Peterson said. “If we could go back we would, but we won’t sacrifice his education and the chance to live on his own, we hope.”

The Petersons’ lives would be easier financially, they said, if they had $1,000 more coming in each month to help pay their bills. But how to secure that money is the question. Robert Peterson is still waiting to hear about his disability claim, and Nancy Peterson has little interest in moving up the ladder at Walmart. “That’s about as high as I want to go. I’m perfectly happy right where I am,” she said.

She’s heard the criticisms leveled at Walmart, and resents them. “They get too much flak because it is not a bad place to work. There’s nowhere in the world that doesn’t have something. Because Walmart is a box store everyone says all the awful stuff about it,” she said.

The Petersons are part of a barter economy, in which they furnish goods and favors to friends, who do the same for them. A friend down the street will buy food for Justin; another friend takes him out to the Montshire Museum in Norwich and cared for him for four days when Robert was in the hospital with the fractured neck; in return the Petersons help her with gas money from time to time. A third friend broke his knee earlier this winter, and they help ferry him where he needs to go.

“Now we have quite a few people here who know us and care about us,” Robert Peterson said.

Even so, some days seem like a battle, and Nancy Peterson’s humor can’t always deflect the fatigue that sets in. “I just sort of exist in the world, I think,” she said one day, staring into space.

But there is some room for optimism. Because she has had insomnia and poor sleep patterns since Justin’s birth, she recently took part in a sleep study at DHMC. It was determined that she has sleep apnea, as do Robert and Justin. Although her heart doesn’t stop, her oxygen level drops enough to disrupt her sleep. As a result of the study, she will be getting a machine that helps maintain continuous positive airway pressure, known as a CPAP, to help her sleep normally.

“We’re all going to be one big happy family with our CPAPs,” she said.

It is difficult to envision what the future might look like, much less imagining how to alter it. A house? “Part of me has always wanted to own a home but the other part of me thinks it would be hard to keep up with the taxes,” Robert Peterson said.

The American Dream, to them, is not necessarily about money or climbing a ladder. “It’s the freedom to do what you want and the ability not to worry about what’s happening to you,” he said.

For Nancy Peterson, it means liberation. “I can do what I want, when I want, how I want, and I don’t have to answer to anybody but myself.”

And five years from now, where do they see themselves? What might change? “I’m kind of guessing probably nothing because I’m not going to leave Walmart,” Nancy Peterson said.

“Five years from now I’ll be 52,” said Robert Peterson. “Hopefully I’ll be collecting my disability, and hopefully I’ll stop having seizures. Our current van will be paid off by then, provided we still have it.”

Nancy Peterson set her shoulders in an expression of both resignation and resolution.

“I’m all right,” she said. “I go from day to day and do whatever I need to do.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.