Image by Kanan Shah via COURIER Image by Kanan Shah via COURIER

The economy may be strong, but many Americans still find it difficult to meet basic needs—especially during the holiday season.

Next week, millions of families across the country will gather together to open up presents under their Christmas trees. Melody Branch, a 28-year-old native of Little Rock, Arkansas, worries she and her five children won’t be one of them. 

Last month, Branch lost her job at a beauty supply store, beginning what she described as a “downward spiral.” 

Since becoming unemployed, Branch has had to return her refrigerator and bed (which she had been renting), and pawn her laptop, TV, sound bar, and game system just to scrape together enough money to pay her bills. 

Branch receives help from her children’s father, who pays their rent using money he gets from his disability benefits. But she has struggled to be able to afford much else: She’s gone nearly two months without a paycheck.

“It’s just been very hard for me,” Branch told COURIER. “I have utility bills that are due but I can’t pay them,” 

This rough patch is what prompted the woman to start a GoFundMe fundraiser in November. Her goal is to raise $1,000 to provide her children toys for Christmas. 

The fundraiser was a last resort for Branch. 

“I had initially tried to talk to family members to see if there was anything they could donate, or anything, but they’re struggling like I’m struggling, so they couldn’t help me,” she said. 

While the stock market is surging and unemployment is low, many Americans like Branch still find it difficult to meet basic needs. Nearly three out of four (74 percent) people live paycheck to paycheck, according to a September 2019 survey of 28,893 respondents from the American Payroll Association.

The struggles of low-income families are often exacerbated by the holiday season, which has been shown to raise stress levels, particularly among women and lower-middle income individuals.

“If you think about low-income families, there are really ongoing financial pressures throughout the year,” Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the nonprofit research group Urban Institute, told the Huffington Post in 2018. “Those financial pressures can intensify during the holidays.”

This pressure and the accompanying lack of resources pushes many individuals to rely on charitable giving and platforms like GoFundMe to provide their children with Christmas gifts.

A quick look at GoFundMe’s website shows that wedged in between fundraisers for medical bills, school supplies, and funeral costs are hundreds of Christmas fundraisers created by and for struggling Americans.

There’s Kentral, a single mother of four from Memphis, Tenn., who says she can’t afford Christmas gifts and just wants her kids to be happy at Christmas. In neighboring Kentucky, Javonne launched a fundraiser asking for as little as “1 penny or 5 cents,” while in Ohio, Destini, a mother of four, is also trying to raise money for gifts. 

“I’m doing everything I can to raise them and I know I have let them down this year please help make sure they have a small Christmas I’ll never be able to do it on my own!” Destini wrote. 

“I know how it feels growing up and struggling. We didn’t have a lot of things and I don’t want them to go through the same things that I went through.” 

Branch, the mom in Arkansas, said she has been babysitting and driving friends to work for extra cash. That money, however, has gone toward necessities, such as paying for gas or diapers. After all those expenses, there’s nothing left for Christmas gifts for her kids, who range in age from nine months to 10 years old.

Four years ago, Branch found herself in another tough spot around Christmas—one that put her in the center of an ongoing lawsuit against the city of Little Rock. In December 2015, just 10 days before Christmas, the city condemned the Alexander Apartments complex where Branch lived, ordering her and other tenants to evacuate and find new accommodations. They had seven days’ notice and received no assistance from the city. A judge ruled in favor of Branch and other residents; she, however, is uncertain if she’ll ever see the money from that case.

Branch knows the GoFundMe she launched is something of a long shot, but she wants to give her kids more than she had growing up. “I know how it feels growing up and struggling. We didn’t have a lot of things and I don’t want them to go through the same things that I went through.” 

Eager to improve her family’s lot in life, Branch is set to start a new job with AT&T in January, and has enrolled in the University of Phoenix, where she plans to get her associate’s degree in business. Her program begins in March 2020. Her hope is that she can eventually start her own business recycling baby clothes that no longer fit and turning them into keepsakes, such as pillows and blankets. 

“There’s a lot of obstacles in my way, but I’m still trying,” Branch said. “I’m trying to push forward, because if I give up, my kids are not going to survive.”