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.
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"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."

Continued on page 2:  "We Had to Move into a Motel"


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