BARNEGAT – The room is jammed. There are two beds, a couple of dressers and a stack of green plastic bins that serve as a closet. A sheet hangs over the entrance, and successful homework assignments adorn the walls.
This is where Max Malick and his three children live – in the dining room of his mother’s home.
One night, as he put them to bed, the single dad gave his kids a little pep talk.
“I want to make sure they do good in school and keep a positive attitude,” he said, “because I don’t want them to wake up one day being 35 and making the same mistakes I did.”
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Max’s mistakes were serious. In 2008, he got busted as part of a cocaine-dealing ring. After pleading guilty to conspiracy, he wound up serving six months of a three-year sentence 2012. His mother took in the kids and he joined them upon his release.
After four years in the dining room, the situation at home is tense and approaching untenable. There are four others, including Max’s 24-year-old pregnant sister, in this three-bedroom ranch with one bathroom.
He’s looking for housing, but making $11 an hour as a landscaper, his options are bleak. It’s hard enough to buy Christmas presents for 12-year-old Keyera, 11-year-old Marcus and 7-year-old Devon.
“My heart breaks that these kids have to struggle like this because of the mistakes I made,” Max said.
After the fall, starting over
At the height of the drug ring, Malick said, he was making $1,000 per week selling to people in bars and folks he grew up with. He also worked a legit job with a sprinkler system company.
“I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said of the dealing. “It was about the money.”
After the bust, he said, he started using cocaine and the downward spiral hastened. In the end, he was left with nothing but his three kids.
“I want to be there for them,” he said, adding that he is clean now. “They know what I’ve done, that it was wrong. I’ve been honest with them.”
Marcus and Devon share a double bed. Keyera has a single bed along the opposite wall and Max sleeps on a pull-out trundle. Nobody complains.
“I was blessed with the greatest kids in the world,” Max said. “They mean the world to me and they are so strong.”
A hole in the safety net
For reasons across the spectrum, lots of families in this state are sledding uphill as parents work low-paying jobs. That’s why the fight to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 has become a front-burner issue.
The current rate of $8.38 rises a paltry six cents on Jan. 1. In August, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would nudge it to $15 by 2021, prompting Democratic lawmakers to push for a statewide referendum on the measure next November.
“New Jersey is a very expensive place to live,” said Donna Blaze, founding director of the Monmouth County-based Affordable Housing Alliance. “Those who are above the federal poverty level but make 11, 12, 13 dollars an hour and work 40 hours a week really struggle to sustain a family.”
Malick gets $300 per month in food stamps. He said Ocean County Social Services could offer him more benefits if he didn’t work at all.
As Blaze explained it, “There’s not a sliding scale that says, “OK if you’re making $11 an hour and you’re just above the poverty level, we can help you out a little bit. It’s usually either you’re eligible for almost everything or you’re eligible for nothing.”
In other words, there’s a hole in the safety net for the working poor.
“Those cases are the ones we are most concerned about,” Blaze said.
Would a $15 wage make a difference?
“An extra $4 bucks an hour, that would be huge — huge,” Malick said. “That’s an extra $640 a month. That’s all the bills.”
An offer to help
At his mother’s urging, Malick said, he plans on moving out with the kids by the end of the month. He reached out to Paul Hulse at HAVEN/Beat the Street, a nonprofit in Ocean and Atlantic counties, for assistance in finding an affordable home.
“If somebody has a rental in the Barnegat area, even if it’s a winter rental, we’re willing to join forces with them on this,” Hulse said – an offer to pitch in and cover some of the rent. “We come across these situations every day. There is so much need.”
The Malicks’ story encompasses a lot of political footballs – criminal rehabilitation, the minimum wage, affordable housing. They’re harder to punt when you’re sitting in a cramped bedroom with a 12-year-old whose Christmas wish is to just have a little space of her own.
“You know how many times these kids have said to me, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it – you don’t have to get us any presents?’” Max Malick said.
His voice cracked as he said it.
To follow up with Paul Hulse on affordable housing for the Malicks in the Barnegat area, contact firstname.lastname@example.org at the nonprofitHAVEN/Beat the Street.
Community columnist Jerry Carino: email@example.com.