Living the Recession: Broken Dreams for Middle-Class Families
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Living the Recession: Broken Dreams for Middle-Class Families

The economy may be showing signs of recovery, but millions of middle-class Americans are still in serious financial trouble. Here, four families share the story of how the recession hit home -- and how they're struggling to put their lives back together.

"We Went on Food Stamps"

Andrew and Michelle Balzer knew their lives had changed irrevocably when they heard the tow truck in their driveway at 2 a.m. last June. "They'd come to repossess our minivan," says Andrew, 45, who lives with his wife and four daughters in an upscale section of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. "We asked the repo guy if we could at least get the girls' toys out first, and he said okay. But we're outside, in our pajamas, unloading the van, and I'm thinking, 'This can't be happening.'"

Just last year Andrew was pulling in a six-figure salary as a business manager at an IT staffing company. The holiday season was approaching and things were looking good: He'd just won a major contract and was in the process of setting up new offices in Seattle. But despite that business, his company's revenues plummeted with the recession and Andrew was laid off last November. He has since spent the family's savings, stopped paying his $3,100 monthly mortgage, and is living on unemployment benefits of around $1,900 a month. "A friend suggested that I apply for food stamps," says Andrew, who is now receiving $293 a month in stamps for his family of six. "It's something that never even crossed my mind until she brought it up. I mean, why would it? I've never been in this position before."

Now the Balzers' home of 10 years is dangerously close to foreclosure. Andrew says they are $40,000 behind in payments and that the mortgage company has been calling. He has no idea where they'll end up if they are forced out. "We've had a lot of help from friends and my mom," he says, "but they can only do so much. The idea of losing our home is the scariest thing yet. I just really, really need to work, but there is nothing out there. Nothing." A business graduate from California State University, Northridge, Andrew estimates he's applied for more than 60 jobs. And his wife is looking for part-time work.

The four Balzer girls are aware the family's economic status has changed. They've adjusted to having one car, no cable, and eating in every night. But birthdays are hard. Their family tradition was to celebrate at Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm, but now the kids take a rain check. "They say, 'We'll go when Daddy gets a job,'" says Andrew. "But then the next question always is, 'Daddy, when are you getting a job?' It can really drag your spirits down, especially coming from 5- and 7-year-olds."

Andrew is currently making a small monthly commission selling organic beverages online. It's helpful but not lucrative or stable enough for the family to live on. "Everybody talks about the effects of the stimulus package and the fact that the stock market shows the economy is starting to recover," he says. "But I don't see it from where I'm standing, no matter how hard I look."

"We Had to Move into a Motel"

At first Fred Scott's kids saw life in a motel room as an adventure. The TV was right by the bed, nearly everyone got to sleep in the same room -- and those little bars of soap? Downright exotic. Plus, with nowhere for their mom or dad to cook, Taco Bell and McDonald's became dinner staples. "The little ones were pretty excited," says Fred, 34. "But the older kids were hit with the reality pretty fast: that we'd lost our apartment and were basically homeless."

Fred, his wife, Lisa, and their six young kids were evicted from their Huntington Beach, California, apartment last year. It was the day after Mother's Day and Fred had recently been laid off as a maintenance and repair engineer for a commercial dishwasher company. His pay, $55,000 a year, had put them squarely in the middle class. They lived in a nice neighborhood near the beach where their kids, ranging in age from 2 to 11, attended local schools or stayed home with their full-time caregiver mom. "After the eviction we didn't have the money or credit for an apartment that would fit all of us, and our parents weren't in situations where they could take us in, so we figured we'd tough it out at a cut-rate motel until things got better," says Fred. But once they checked in, two of the kids started having asthma attacks and severe outbreaks of eczema. "Those places allow animals and the kids have allergies," says Fred. "Our poor boys were up all night scratching and wheezing. We saw doctors a couple of times a week."

The Scotts decided to spend their dwindling savings on nicer accommodations, so they moved into a pricier motel and struck a weekly deal with a sympathetic manager. They financed their stay with Fred's new job as a cable TV installer. The money kept a three-star roof over their head until orders for cable dipped with the economy. The family briefly considered checking into a shelter. "I didn't want to turn away help, but we have little kids, and we were worried about what kind of people might also be there," says Fred. "Friends were saying, 'Well, you gotta do what you gotta do,' but for us, the kids' safety came first, no matter what. We just couldn't do it."

After their truck was impounded -- with the children's medication, clothing, and diapers in the back -- the intensely private family began reaching out for help. They alerted their kids' principal, who helped keep the children on track in school and gave the Scotts a list of resources that led them to the Orange County Rescue Mission. One year after they'd lost their apartment, the family moved into a four-bedroom flat. The security deposit was donated by the mission, which is now also helping Fred get an armed-security-guard license. "If I hadn't found them, I hate to think what would have happened to my family," says Fred, who is still without a car. "It gives me hope that after everything, there's still a possibility we could turn things around."

"We Have to Go Without Medical Care"

Two years ago Keith and Cheryl Johnson's life in Falmouth, Maine, was as serene as the view over the town's boat-filled harbor. "It was a nice life," says Cheryl, 52, "not a lot of worries." Keith, also 52, a trucker, and Cheryl, a real-estate agent and appraiser, had a combined annual income of $76,000 -- enough for them to live in a nice neighborhood with good public schools for their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel.

In June 2007 the life they had built for themselves began to unravel. Keith ruptured several spinal disks in a work-related accident and could no longer sit for long drives. Then in March 2009 his company downsized and he was laid off. His employer had provided the family's health insurance and they were shocked to learn that it would cost $1,564 a month to buy COBRA coverage for all of them, a figure much more than their budget could absorb.

There really was no choice, though. Keith needed insurance to pay for the back surgery he was scheduled for, as well as for his diabetes and hypertension medications. The family decided to continue insurance -- for $564 a month -- for him only. By this time the real-estate market had taken a hit and Cheryl had less work and less income. "What's more important -- your health or food for your family?" Keith asks in frustration about their impossible situation.

With no insurance for her or her daughter, Cheryl was forced to forgo the anti-anxiety medication she'd been on since Keith's accident and had to pray for Rachel's continued good health. Then came more bad news: Cheryl's job was being eliminated.

On her last day of work Cheryl felt something pop while she ate. Three days later her face was red and swollen and her right eye drooped. At the emergency room she was diagnosed with cellulitis, a bacterial infection that can be disabling or fatal if untreated. She was put on antibiotics and told to see a dental surgeon in three days.

The infection cleared up quickly, but there was no money for the surgery. That reality, along with the bleak job outlook and their growing debt, prompted a decision the Johnsons had hoped to avoid. They left Maine and moved in with Cheryl's widowed mother in Ohio. The move was supposed to make their lives less stressful by saving money, but it has had the opposite effect on Keith, who worries about starting over with new doctors. He is hoping to settle a workers' compensation claim so he can be retrained in a field that doesn't require extended sitting.

Cheryl's prospects look brighter. She heard that a local real-estate appraiser might be hiring soon. On the job application, where it asked about which types of insurance might interest her, Cheryl checked every box. "Dental, vision, disability, I don't care what's left over money wise," she says. "I'm starved for coverage. If I could I would stand on the highway with a sign that says 'Will work for insurance.'"

"The Military Was Our Best Option"

Newlyweds Sara and Travis Dubay don't need the Dow Jones for economic forecasts. The couple, both 27, only need to look at their own dwindling bank statement. Five jobs between them lost in a year. More than 400 job applications and barely a call for an interview. And now confronting a future that will require them to live thousands of miles apart.

Just 18 months ago the couple could hardly have imagined such a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Sara made $700 a week at an engineering firm working as a computer-aided drafter. Travis, a skilled blacksmith originally from the Michigan rust belt, had moved to coastal Calabash, North Carolina, with Sara and had landed an assistant manager job at a restaurant that paid $300 a week. Yes, it was less than he had previously earned in his trade, but he and Sara were young and in love and had high hopes that he'd be able to do better eventually. They planned a June 2009 wedding, after which Travis was going to adopt 5-year-old Addison, Sara's son from a previous relationship. "Life was good," Sara says.

When Sara was laid off, in June 2008, she didn't panic. Instead she cobbled together part-time jobs and ultimately landed a position in the marketing department of a hotel, where Travis was eventually also hired. But then he and Sara were both laid off a week apart in October 2008. As bills went unpaid, their worries mounted. "I was scared," Sara says. "There was no light at the end of the tunnel."

Travis was even harder hit: He felt he was failing his future family. A friend suggested he join the military. With the country at war, Travis knew he would most likely be deployed. But it was his only option, so he enlisted last November. He and Sara got married just before he left for basic training.

This past July the family moved to their first assignment, in Colorado Springs. The immediate perks of Army life, including a housing allowance and family insurance coverage, have brought some relief. But Sara's worries about money have been replaced by anxiety over Travis's first deployment, which could come at any time. "The separation is going to be hard," she says. Travis is nervous about going to war, but he'd rather face combat than be unemployed and unable to provide for his family. "In the year before joining I spent six months looking for work. Now I have job security," he says. "Uncle Sam doesn't lay anyone off."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.