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A Grocery Clerk's Fight: How to Live on $32,000 a Year

Bob Fustero took a pay cut from $60,000 to $32,000 when he retired on a disability from his job as a grocery clerk at Giant. Trying to make ends meet in pricey Montgomery County has propelled him into a very different world, a longshot run for county executive. Today's column looks at his world view and some of the topics that may be missing from the big campaigns.

When Bob Fustero went to work as a grocery clerk at Giant in 1976, he made $5.50 an hour. The money wasn't exactly gushing in, but it was enough for him to buy a car, get an apartment and take classes at American University.

Three decades later, clerks starting out at Giant make barely more than that, and the pay doesn't come close to supporting the middle-class life that Fustero enjoyed.

"These are the forgotten people," said Fustero, 55, who is retired because of a disability. "These are the grocery clerks and nurses and cops and teachers who cannot afford to live in Montgomery County."

Fustero has never held elective office. He has never been in management. But he is running for county executive in the Democratic primary next month because he knows that despite Montgomery's million-dollar houses and affluent image, most people don't make megabucks, and he wants to speak for them.

"People in Montgomery talk about how they love the diversity of the county, but the only diversity they really like is the different kinds of people who can afford to live here," Fustero said. "So if you're black or Asian, and you can buy a $600,000 home, fine. But they're not interested in the people who make $60,000 a year. They're not interested in the homeless guy.

"When they see the guy selling flowers on the street corner, they roll up their windows. Buy the flowers, even if you don't need them, because that guy's not on welfare, and he's trying to make it here."

The political know-it-alls say the race to succeed Doug Duncan is between Steve Silverman and Ike Leggett, and they're almost certainly right. In that choice, Montgomery has, as usual, far better options than most places. Silverman and Leggett are intelligent, committed and serious, and both want to address mounting problems with affordable housing, traffic and the yawning gap between rich and poor.

But Montgomery is packed with families that moved to the suburbs when life there was affordable, only to find now that their children cannot stay where they grew up unless they strike it rich.

Fustero doesn't have position papers, radio ads or policy staffers. He has a handful of photocopied sheets laying out his platform. And he had four volunteers, until one took a trip to Turkey.

A jovial, heavyset guy whose crowded one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring features a working slot machine that he bought off a late-night infomercial for $300, Fustero admires Silverman and Leggett and says one of them will probably win. (Fustero likes Leggett better because "he seems like a person who wouldn't be too upset if he lost.") But he wishes they would talk more about people like him, "the people who aren't doing so well, the people who wish they could live here, the people living two or three families to a house."

Fustero is no bleeding heart. He is pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-slots and a big fan of Gov. Bob Ehrlich's. But Fustero also favors setting a minimum living wage, killing the intercounty connector because he thinks it won't alleviate traffic on the Capital Beltway and scrapping Metro's proposed Purple Line between Bethesda and New Carrollton because he says the inner county is too crowded. In an age when politicians dare not say such things, Fustero is cheerfully pro-sprawl. "There's a whole lot of land out there," he said.

Fustero considers himself the kind of Democrat his party left behind, a moderate who cannot fathom how the party of the working class abandoned those wage earners and buddied up to the college set and the public radio crowd. He knows there are people out there like him. In 2002, when he ran for governor in the primary against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he spent $600 on his campaign and drew an astonishing 20 percent of the vote -- an early and all-too-accurate sign of Townsend's weakness as a candidate.

This time, Fustero will spend about $60, mostly on photocopying. On his $32,000 in retirement income, it's all he can afford. He goes to forums and argues for 4 percent mortgages for working people and for a ratcheting down of the culture of affluence: "The developers put in these luxury houses with granite countertops. There's nothing wrong with Corian or Formica."

Instead of finely honed positions, Fustero has random ideas. He has been an officer of his condominium association for five years, and when there were too many ducks making a mess at the swimming pool, Fustero suggested a duck roast. "People thought that was cruel," he said, laughing, "but it was a creative idea."

Fustero has ideas for the county, too, such as paying some county workers a flat fee to stay home for two years. The county would save on benefits, and at the end of the two years, the positions could probably be eliminated when people realize that everything was okay without having those workers in the office.

"I'm just a grocery clerk," Fustero said, "but there are other people like me, and they're going to surprise everyone with how they vote. You know, I get these letters from psychics all the time. They say September's going to be a big month for me. We'll see."

By Marc Fisher |  August 27, 2006; 12:51 PM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Let's just hope this guy doesn't receive enough "pity" votes to actually elect him to office.

Also: "So if you're black or Asian, and you can buy a $600,000 home, fine."


Posted by: bea | August 27, 2006 1:16 PM

Nothing strange about that comment. He's saying that wealthy minorities are welcome in MC, poor minorities are not. Although, historically, the wealthier neighborhoods have expressed doubt about anyone who can't afford the housing in their neighborhoods, regardless of race: Efforts to include moderate-income development near such enclaves have produced concerns about the presence of "those people" (teachers, police officers, fire fighters...) bringing down the tone of the area.

Oh, and I was pleased to see that my elementary school, Highland Elementary in Wheaton, was feted last week for raising students' proficiency from 38% to 68% (78%?) over the past few years.

Posted by: GJ | August 27, 2006 4:52 PM

In 1998, I moved out of my parents' house and was able to support myself on a job that paid $10.48 an hour, living in an apartment in beautiful downtown Silver Spring. Today, I wouldn't have a chance in the world of being able to do that, even adjusting my wage for inflation. I guess this is good in a way, but certainly my quality of life in Silver Spring has not improved all that much with the influx of money.

Michael Grunwald's front-page Outlook article seems to provide a nice consonance with Marc's column this Sunday.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 27, 2006 5:52 PM

The guy spends $300 for a working slot machine for his bedroom, but $60 is all the can afford for position papers. He must really want this job.

And, what's so creative, in Montgomery County, for paying people for not working for two years? Don't we already pay them to not work until they're retired?

$32,000 a year is a lot of money. Why doesn't he just move someplace where the cost of living is lower?

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 5:10 AM

Maybe he thinks of Montgomery County as his home and doesn't want to move for that reason. I know in this postmodern age we're not supposed to have "homes," and we're supposed to be moving from job to job and place to place constantly to maximize our value, but some of us are stuck with premodern concepts for relating to the world.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 28, 2006 8:53 AM

$300 for a slot machine?! There was money well spent! Idiot.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 28, 2006 9:03 AM

KK, if everyone followed your advice then all the grocery stores here would have to close.

How is THAT a good plan?

Posted by: JC | August 28, 2006 10:47 AM

Ok, I love how there is a whole article highlighting a person who is unhappy with the fact that it is becoming too expensive to live in a place he's lived in his whole life, and he's doing something about it, and the only thing some people get out of that is that he paid $300 for a slot machine. Give me a break!!! If that's the only thing that stuck with you from the article then you completely missed the point and you just like to have something to point your finger at.

It might seem silly to most, but come on, you've never splurged for something you really wanted to have at the expense of something else? The only thing stated was that he bought this slot machine, but no one reading this knows if he did that unscrupulously, or if he ate nothing but rice and beans for a month so he could afford it. No one here has ever had a hobby and saved up for something they really wanted...something that other people might not understand the fascination of?

And to "KK" - I don't know if you're from this area, but $32,000 is not a lot of money - it is practically impossible to live middle class here on that. It's easy to say "move somewhere else", but the point of the article is that it is a shame it has to come to that. You don't know the circumstances - maybe all his family is here and at 55 it's not so easy to just pack up and go to some random place that is cheaper.

Would you want your father to have to do that if he worked his whole living and working in the same area and at retirement the cost of living skyrocketed beyond his means? When you're young and able sure, you have to do what you have to do to make your living, but he's getting close to the age where most people are towards the end of their careers and are ready to begin retirement. I'm from Pittsburgh where $200K will still buy you a heck of a house, and I think it's crazy that people have to pay $400K+ for a shoebox around here. It didn't used to be like that though, and I feel the plight of people who have their roots here and thought they would retire here, and are being forced out at the end of their working lives so that someone can build more lawyer dorms.

I might not agree with some of his views and probably wouldn't vote for him, but I understand the underlying issue and admire that he's choosing to do something about it instead of just sitting around and complaining.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 28, 2006 11:19 AM

To the 11:19 poster:

You're breaking my heart. To answer your question, my father moved when he retired and he was much happier for it. The South and Southwest are full of people who move when they retire.

If you don't think $32,000 is a lot of money, you need to get out more. Go to West Virginia. Go to the Eastern Shore where people live in trailers. Offer them a pension of $32,000 a year and see what the reaction is.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 12:50 PM

He was making $5.50 an hour in the 1970s?!

Posted by: preslopsky | August 28, 2006 1:43 PM

KK, the point is that in MoCo, 32K is nothing. You make it sound like moving is a piece of cake. It's not. Maybe when you're young and have no real attachments, just saying "I'm out of here" is a snap, but this guy obviously does want to still live here.

Posted by: tallbear | August 28, 2006 2:21 PM

To tallbear,

Look, I want to live in Beverly Hills, but I can't afford it. So what? Shed a tear for me?

Moving isn't a piece of cake. It's hard. But people do it every day and they improve their lives. Where is it written that people have the right to live at the same address all their lives with no increase in cost?

There are people with real problems, and this guy's not one of them. He's a whiner with a slot machine in his bedroom.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 2:42 PM

KK, how is unwillingly moving away from your family and friends at retirement age "improving your life"? If you paid attention you would see that I'm talking about 32K AROUND HERE - this is the Washington Post, not the Weirton times. Nobody said that moving is the end of the world, just that it's a shame that it's come to that. Problems are relative - you don't know anything about this guy -moving might not seem like a big deal to you but you don't know how moving might affect this particular person's life. You're just a blowhard know-it-all with a computer in their room.

Posted by: 11:19 | August 28, 2006 3:03 PM

Have you ever encountered a situation that you thought was not fair to a great number of people and decided to take a chance and do something about it? At least this guy is taking a chance and speaking out not just for himself, but for other people in the same financial situations. And how do you know this guy didn't buy the slot machine when he was still making $60,000.00?

What are you going to say next....people just needs to get jobs with higher pay???

Posted by: WB | August 28, 2006 3:38 PM

"Ok, I love how there is a whole article highlighting a person who is unhappy with the fact that it is becoming too expensive to live in a place he's lived in his whole life, and he's doing something about it, and the only thing some people get out of that is that he paid $300 for a slot machine. Give me a break!!! If that's the only thing that stuck with you from the article then you completely missed the point and you just like to have something to point your finger at."

You have to admit, it was a pretty stupid thing to have in the article. Has nothing to do with anything.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 28, 2006 3:43 PM

Have you ever encountered a situation that you thought was not fair to a great number of people and decided to take a chance and do something about it? At least this guy is taking a chance and speaking out not just for himself, but for other people in the same financial situations. And how do you know this guy didn't buy the slot machine when he was still making $60,000.00?

What are you going to say next....people just needs to get jobs with higher pay???

Posted by: WB | August 28, 2006 3:47 PM

To WB,

It would be nice if we all could get jobs with higher pay. But, since we can't, then the fact is that we all have to adjust our life styles to the pay that we earn. With $32,000 a year, people can live very comfortably in most of the US. Most retirees have far less than that. And, in a few years, he can start drawing another $20K a year from Social Security.

On a scale of one to ten, this guy's problems are about a two.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 4:07 PM

Why would you want to have a slot machine in your house (no matter how much you earn)? What, do you win money from yourself? Someone help me out...

Posted by: Anonymous | August 28, 2006 4:42 PM


Here's the problem with your statement. There are a lot of necessary jobs in and around this city that don't pay enough for those people to live close by (grocery clerks, police officers, etc). So those people have to move further and further away where they can afford to live somewhere. That means there is more traffic on the roads, more gridlock, more pollution, and more problems in general.
As it is, most people making even a middle wage salary or more have a hard time affording some place to live in this area.

If there was just more of an effort to build mixed residential close to the city, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Posted by: RiverGuy | August 28, 2006 4:54 PM

To RiverGuy,

Isn't it just amazing that all the new residential construction is going on and people are moving in, but no one can afford it? It's like that bar where Yogi Berra said "no one goes there any more because it's gotten too crowded."

To 11:19,

How would he improve his life by moving? Is this a trick question? If he moved his rent would be a lot lower and he would have more to spend on other things. No more $300 slot machines -- he could upgrade to the $600 model.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 4:58 PM

Of course there are people that can afford the million dollar homes that are ebing built. But they are NOT grocery clerks, police officers, and front-line fire fighters. These people doesn't expect to live in mansions, but they do want to live comfortably and save a little out of each paycheck. Everyone wants a decent quality of life. Grow up!

Posted by: WB | August 28, 2006 5:32 PM


All the occupations you mentioned -- grocery clerks, police officers, and front-line fire fighters (you left out school teachers) -- are unionized. They make enough "to live comfortably and save a little out of each pay check."

This is a different blog. It's about a retiree. His income has been halved, and he doesn't want to adjust his expenses to accomodate his reduced income, so he's running for public office with a slot machine in his bedroom. We're feeling sorry for him.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 5:55 PM

The slot machine remark is the kind of reference many reporters make when they want to express an opinion about a person that jounalisitic standards wouldn't ordinarily allow. It fits the mold of one of my favorites, typically used to show that a reporter thinks someone is a dandy and of questionable consequence because of it, " X with a penchant for custom shirts and french cuffs, opened his jacket and leaned back in his chair, saying....."

Posted by: CW | August 28, 2006 6:02 PM

KK, the article said the man made $32,000 a year. Perhaps if he did not belong to a union, he would be making less than that.

If every police officer, teacher, fire fighter, janitor, grocery clerk and service worker took your advice and moved someplace else where the living standards are lower, what would you do? Would you be willing to pay higher taxes so these people can live in Montgomery County, or would you be willing to change zoning laws so that more affordable housing can be built in Montgomery County---even if it's next to where you live?

Posted by: Edward J. Cunningham | August 28, 2006 6:12 PM

Edward J. Cunningham,

The man's pension is $32,000. That's a very generous pension. Before he was retired he made $60,000.

If all the retirees move to places where the cost of living is lower, I don't think it would make much difference. As is, I think you can find plenty of people who will work as a grocery clerk for $60,000 a year and can live quite well in the Washington area.

I don't see the case for subsidized (affordable) housing for people who make $60,000 a year. Recent immigrants with much lower incomes are able to find housing throughout the metro area.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 7:18 PM

Trying to convince someone of something on the Internet is like trying to orally stimulate your own genitalia: It seems like it'll be great, but you spend a lot of time trying to do something that will never, ever happen.

Posted by: Lindemann | August 28, 2006 7:28 PM

Lindemann, I'm laughing me a** off! Now I know why Pluto was bumped off the planet list. It's because people like KK lives on it!!!

Posted by: WB | August 28, 2006 8:45 PM

WB--I agree with you that Lindemann has the post of the day. (See, you just disproved his point by convincing me.) But I've got to think it's better here on Pluto than walking around with your head up Uranus.

Posted by: KK | August 28, 2006 9:36 PM

When my mother moved to DC in 1962 she rented a small attic apartment in a run-down house, in 1964, the widowed Mrs Kennedy moved down the street so the kids could finish school. Every morning my mother would wave to Caroline. By the late 1960s, partly because of the Kennedy mystique, rents in Georgetown were unbearable, and when my parents got married they reluctantly left DC and moved to Bethesda (but made sure they had enough land to have a tiny farm). They worked like heck to improve the neighborhood and 40 years later houses on their block go for $2 million plus. I make nearly 6 figures and my wife more than half that, yet cannot afford to live on the block I grew up on. Why? Because DEMAND is high there. So I bought a house in DC for under $200k about 10 years ago. A house on my block sold for $1 million. In a DC neighborhood that was hit by the 1968 Riots. A friend rented a junky old house in Arlington that was sold and an apartment building went up, selling 12 condos at $300k each, or roughly $3.6 million. A friend bought a house on PA Ave in infamous Anacostia for $99k that today is supposedly worth $400k. This is due to demand. You can never regulate demand. It's a real shame that Mr. Fustero never went to Law School or got an MBA or started his own business. That was a big mistake that will haunt him in his disability. Yet it is #1, his big mistake and not ours, and #2, not specific to Montgomery County, but is reflective of all areas in DC.

Posted by: Bethesdan | August 29, 2006 4:28 PM

This is hilarious. $60K a year as a grocery clerk and people are whining about how its too expensive to live in the area because of the high housing prices.....I smell a correlation here.

I remember getting paid min wage as a grocery clerk and processing three times as many people as the unionized old lady back in 1988. The old lady had the benefits and got paid 3 times as much as I did, yet she still complained. I paid my way through college and that old lady is probably complaining in the same grocery store.

For the math deficient, high demand and high wages = high cost of living. Housing costs aren't going to drop by offering everyone a low interest loan, quite frankly the opposite happens as you can see from the last 5 years.

If teachers, policemen, firemen do leave the area due to high costs then good. That will mean wages will have to rise to compensate. Obviously that isn't happening for some reason. Maybe because the market has set the right wages?

I don't see a reason why I need to subsidize the cost of living for other people so they can remain in an area. They had the last 30 years of their lives to save and prepare for retirement. What happened to the personal responsibility that created this great nation?

Posted by: PTT | August 29, 2006 4:39 PM

I'm not necessarily advocating for subsidized interest rates. What I'm saying is that there are relatively few places close to the city that reflect the incomes of many in the public. Most of the places being built are high end condos or giant houses. That's because most developers tend to make more money for building fewer but larger houses. Of course that means a large portion of your local workforce can't live locally, and then you have external costs that aren't taken into consideration economically, such as the cost to increase infrastructure which is a burden on tax payers, not the developer. By incentivizing more mixed housing, you can reduce infrastructure costs.

As for people buying the houses, they may not actually be able to afford the costs, but take a loan anyway to buy, and then end up dedicating most of their income on their mortgage payment. Or get loans w/o a fixed interest rate. So then rates go up, and then you see an increase in the houses going up for sale, like you do now.

Posted by: River Guy | August 29, 2006 5:02 PM

Stupid people buy houses that they can't afford. Foreclosures occur when interest rate rise. House prices in neighborhood drop when bank unloads to get property off their books. Bang. Solves your high cost of living problem and gets rid of your stupid neighbor. Hey and look at that, no government intervention needed.

Those developers are going to be in bankruptcy within the next year or so. Bang. Solves your problem of moronic developers building too many luxury units. Hey and look at that, no government interevention needed.

Government intervenes to provide affordable housing by providing subsidies to moronic developer. Increases pool of demand for units being created. Increases likelihood of middle class buyers having to take bigger loan to pay for the reduced number of units available to them since a chunk is now classified as "affordable housing" (i.e. he isn't poor enough so he needs to pay taxes so that the poor guy can buy the house he wants). Increase pool of moronic developers who builds luxury units since the government will guarantee their profit margins for certain units. Hey and guess what, your problem of affordable housing still hasn't been solved because you just made it even more unaffordable for next tier in the middle class.

The cost of living will sort itself out as it always does. This housing bubble will pop like all the previous ones and you will have a hard time finding someone to buy the "luxury" condo. You can just look at ziprealty and the price reductions that are being listed. 1990 deja vu. Just keep the government away from that bailout money.

Posted by: PTT | August 29, 2006 6:07 PM

Come on people, think about it. A year ago Katrina hit New Orleans. 1300 died, and their relatives lost everything -- homes, livelihoods, possessions. They had to leave the area with nothing and make new lives.

This guy has a pension of $32,000 a year which would allow him to live well almost anywhere in the US. But we should, instead, build him "affordable housing" so that he isn't forced to relocate against his wishes?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 30, 2006 6:21 AM

To paraphrase Pogo, the enemy is us.

If we built smaller houses (think GI Bill-era size) that people could probably afford instead of these bloated McMansions, perhaps our public servants could live in the communities they serve.

But developers won't do that -- not a sufficiently large profit margin. Municipalities won't do that -- lower property taxables, and the fear such properties could end up in the hands of "undesirables," especially non-Asian minorities. Finally, many consumers won't do that -- such smaller houses don't provide enough "prestige." And isn't our standard of living inherently supposed to be higher than that of the previous generation?

I spent many years as a Montgomery resident, so I have an idea what this candidate is talking about. But I wonder how many in the county are actually listening to him.

Posted by: Vincent | August 30, 2006 12:49 PM

Vincent, (1) Developers can price units to make as much money on small units as on large units. (2) Developers build large volumes of small units -- townhomes, condominiums, etc. (3) Municipalities' land use regulations generally favor smaller units. Larger units require variances. (4) Builders can only make money by building what consumers want to buy. (5) There are plenty of small, GI bill houses around. They're called "the existing housing stock."

Posted by: KK | August 30, 2006 2:25 PM

This guy is a complete joke; his solution to the housing crisis is sprawl?

Posted by: Chris | August 30, 2006 8:34 PM

Vincent, very nicely said. In the era that we live in, it's much easier to go to a developer's rep and spec out a home than to try to find an architect and contractor. Developers combine those two steps and provides for very convenient house shopping. And those very developers are only looking out for their wallet content. As soon as the county that I live in passed a law requiring new developments that exceeds a certain number of housing units to build a certain number of "affordable" units, both the developers and prospective house buyers threw a fit. They immediately envisioned trashy backyards, tricked-out cars, and rap music.

Unfortunately, the existing houses in MoCo that are affordable to someone living on $32,000/yr are old and not in a very livable condition. Especially if they have a family and there is only one income coming in. But, there are still people out there that wants a comfortable home in a decent neighborhood. Granted, Fustero isn't really politician material (but look at Frederick City, MD's mayor) I hope his concerns inspires enough people to pursue efforts to create more affordabe housing.

Posted by: WB | August 30, 2006 8:54 PM


What do you see as the "housing crisis," and what do you see as the causes? Home ownership has never been higher in this country, and property values are rising. As people's incomes have risen they have moved to larger homes with more amenities. Older, obsolete homes are being rennovated at record rates. Is this a housing crisis? Certainly not for the majority of Americans.

Posted by: KK | August 31, 2006 8:52 AM

First of all- the slot machine is ten years old, and I have it for entertainment- it pays out tokens and does not accept money only tokens- it is for entertainment purposes and for friends who come over and visit .

Second-- my $32,000 is not all from Giant, half is from giant and the other is disability insurance from SSI

Third- I am not complaining about my condition- I own a condo- I am happy here- I do not want to move- my family lives in the area.

Fourth- I manage just fine on my income.

Fifth- I am running because there is a segment of our population who make more than me, but less than $100,000/yr, and find it hard to buy a house, raise a family
and buy the basics to survive in this County.

Six- I am not whinning- when I was first hired by Giant- Unions were powerful, and Giant was generous- we had good benefits- today the Union is week, and the benefits of Giant and many other Unionize shops are not as great as they used to be.

Seven- I went to graduate school at George Washington- I wanted to be a teachero after trwo years i realized that i did not have a burning desire for the job-- the retail industry at that time was a decent industry to work in- so I followed the footsteps of my father., who raised 4 children as a grocery clerk.

Eighth-I am running because I believe that it is time for some different solutions to the problems that the County is facing.

Ninth- And finally, i can answer all of the critics, even the rude ones, without being rude in turn.Feel free to call me-

I am not as bad as some of you make me out to be.

Posted by: rfustero | September 2, 2006 11:32 AM

To rfustero,

About the ducks in your swimming pool -- do you serve them with a mango salsa? And do you have any suggestions about what we can do with all the pigeons in downtown DC?

Posted by: KK | September 4, 2006 8:58 AM

i can cook a very good tea-smoked duck, but I can have mango salsa if you wish.

I understand pigeons taste good. When I was campaigning in 2002, one of my volunteers who was homeless at the time, had planned a cookout with some other homeless people- food was donated by some of the small mop and pop stores in the Green Meadow area-- it was there that I saw someone cooking pigeon on a spit- I didnt try it- but as they say for all strange food- it taste like chicken

Posted by: rfustero | September 5, 2006 12:20 AM

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