For Kenneth and Melinda Brown, the story of 1984 is told in a thick file of itemized hospital bills mounting to thousands of dollars, sharply worded letters from collection agencies, and warrants in debt on behalf of several doctors.
Last year, Kenneth Brown, 35, had extensive surgery to remove stomach tumors; his wife, 38, was told that she is an epileptic and later underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Last month, Kenneth was hurt in a car accident and had his left arm in a sling. The couple, who are both mildly learning-disabled, have lost months from their jobs as clerks at the federal government's Office of Personnel Management.
It was a year that would have discouraged almost anyone. But the Falls Church couple, far from giving up, ended 1984 determined not to let such setbacks paralyze their lives. They turned their frustration at repeated illnesses and mounting bills into a fight -- a struggle to regain their health, return to work and, slowly, $20 or $30 at a time, chip away at their debts.
"The way I was raised is to do eight hours' work for eight hours' pay," Kenneth Brown said. "I have had it rough, but we want to be able to stand on our own two feet."
As the file of unpaid bills and letters from collection agencies expanded, the Browns say, their frustration grew. With medical insurance, two jobs and no children, they qualified for little federal or state help with the mounting bills.
"They're the working poor that fall through the cracks," said Joan Legallo, a coordinator with Fairfax County's Office of Human Services who has talked with the couple about their situation. "In order to qualify for any of those programs such as federal disability insurance , Kenneth would have to be deemed not able to work. And he could probably get a doctor to certify that he could not work . But he's a pretty honest, direct person -- he's saying, 'I could rip the system off, but I don't want to,' " she said.
Budget cuts in social service programs have made life harder for families such as the Browns, Legallo said. Such people "are having a worse time making it now than they did four or five years ago."
Legallo defines the "working poor" as those whose incomes are between 150 and 200 percent of the poverty level. In 1979, the last year for which such figures are available, about 11 percent of Fairfax County's population had incomes twice the poverty or below, according to the U.S. Census. For a family of two, both under age 65, the poverty-level income that year was $4,878.
If the Browns' predicament is not uncommon, their determination is, according to Legallo, the pastor of their church and others who have helped the couple.
"A lot of people wouldn't try to pay the bills back; they'd just let the judgments pile up," Legallo said.
"They both want to work -- it is a little unusual," said Lyle Paisley, Grand Secretary of the Illinois Masonic Temple, who learned about the Browns through Masons in Northern Virginia.
In the back of the Browns' files are tucked several letters that may point to a slow path out of the couple's medical debts. Since August, Masonic temples in Arlington and the couple's native Illinois have been sending typed letters of support and monthly checks -- $300 at first, now $1,000 -- for as long as the Browns need help.
Kenneth Brown is grateful for the Masons' aid. "These people don't know me. I've never attended that lodge in Arlington . These people weren't obligated to help me," he said.
But he knows the Masons would prefer that the couple spend the checks on living expenses rather than medical bills. "They want me to be taking this money and getting back on my feet. They want us to start over not being in debt, to start over fresh," Kenneth Brown said. "But you close your eyes, and the medical bills are still there."
Before appealing to a local Masonic lodge last summer, say the Browns and those familiar with their situation, the couple tried everything else: Kenneth Brown sold his Masonic ring for $37.50; they set up a stand at the Safeway near their apartment and sold their dishes, barbeque grill, household appliances.
For Kenneth Brown, medical problems -- such as blindness in one eye and foot deformities that have required 19 operations -- and frustration -- date to his childhood in Illinois. Abandoned by his parents, he went to live with Jean Schackmann in Berwyn, a suburb of Chicago, when he was 5 1/2. She was his ninth foster mother.
Schackmann, 76, recalled in a telephone interview that Kenneth Brown was always fiercely independent. "He always had a job. He couldn't stand it if he couldn't earn money," she said.
Now, it is the Browns' determination to keep working that makes their case unusual and their financial situation stickier, said Legallo. "He's struggling day to day; that's what's appealing about them," she said. "What we find is with clients that are in this situation, most are getting some type of disability payment. Unfortunately, the system is sometimes backwards."