Saturday, February 28, 2009

Portrait: Chicago Suburbs, Illinois

If you came to my house, you would see a modest older home on a quiet street, two healthy kids and food in our pantry.

And we're hanging tooth and nail onto that. You would not view us as behind on our mortgage payments and filing bankruptcy. You would not see a family filling for scholarships so our daughter can go to camp this summer and stay at her school.

My husband and I have good jobs. I work in insurance and my husband works in Building Management. All our problems began about two years ago. My husband took a new job. He had been working for a company that required 8-16 hrs of mandatory overtime a week. This sucked for his home life, but we could always pay our bills. Our son has many medical conditions that required $240 worth of co-pays on six medications a month to keep him breathing and eating from severe asthma and GERD. We juggled, but everything was paid on time. When we had to juggle, we relied on credit cards to get by. If our son needed extra meds, it went on there. Kids had a growth spurt, new shoes and clothes went on the card. We paid more than the minimum every month, but it was under control.

Hubby took the new job and the overtime went to about 4 hrs a week. We juggled and still were doing ok. The the overtime dried up completely. More guys were hired at the new job to cover all the buildings, so the overtime was rare. Hubby would go two months with no overtime. We were so happy when a storm hit because it meant a chance at overtime.

We were juggling even more, some bills were not getting paid. We took our son out of daycare to afford having to send our daughter to private school, because our school district has declined so much. We were robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep Peter off our butts. It was a horrible time and no one knew what we were going through.

We went into debt consolidation to clean up our bills. We weren't happy about it but creditors did not want to negotiate. One creditor told me, when trying to negotiate a lower monthly payment, pay the full balance or we will sue you. They did not want a parital payment. The mortgage company wanted us to pay for a program to take the payment out in two parts not one each month. They would not allow us to do it on our own. I was unable to qualify for a program for people who are behind and they would not tell me how to apply. So much for any help from working with your creditors.

The debt consolidation did not help anything. We signed up in March, 2008. In October, 2008, we found out the state of Florida shut the company down. Now nothing was being taken care of. They had settled none of our debts and the calls began yet again. We have both been sued for our some of our debts and we had to go in front of the judges to tell them we were filing bankruptcy. We have applied for a refund from the debt management company and our paperwork was accepted, but we don't know how much and when we will receive from the court.

The bankruptcy process will officially start this week when our tax return will pay the filing fees and we hand the lawyer a stack of personal paperwork to figure out if we qualify for 7 or 13. Our goal is to get rid of the $70,000 of debt and keep the house. We may have to pay part of it back and we are preparing ourselves for that.

The saddest thing is, only about 3 people know what we are going through, Hubby will not tell his family, as his brothers and sisters think we are doing the best of all. Two of his siblings and his parents have gone through bankruptcy before, so I think they would understand. My dad knows, but he isn't telling my mom. He wants to pay off the debts for us, but he is going to retire soon and I don't want to ruin his nest egg. The rest of my family would not be so understanding. So I don't say anything to them.

So, now we juggle each week. We have no credit cards to fall back on in an emergency. Everything we do is a cash basis. I stretch my meds further and beg for samples so my kids can have their meds with no interruptions. We get creative with meal planning. We go through ad papers every week to make sure we are getting the best deal on groceries. I have been selling stuff on Ebay to help pay some of our bills, or have an emergency fund available. I try to find coupons so we can go do things as a normal family occasionally, like roller skating or eating out. I am behind on private school tuition and they have been good working with us as many families in our church are going through similar things.

This experience has totally humiliated and humbled me to no end. The lawyer told us that we can apply for a credit card after the bankruptcy is completed. I will, and then stick it in a cup of water in the freezer. In case of a true emergency.

Suburban Chicago, Illinois

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Portrait: Indianapolis, Indiana

My portrait is actually the story of my father-in-law. And it’s not the story of foreclosures or falling home prices or even investment portfolio nosedives. Rather it’s the story of one man that I think is representative of his generation. Of the pitfalls they’ve faced, even though they made good choices and sound decisions.

His life, until nearly 4 years ago, probably followed the trajectory of many Midwestern blueish/whiteish-collar Boomers his age. He grew up in a tiny mid-century yellow ranch in a small burg on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Had a fully intact set of parents, 3 brothers, a competent, if not top-quality, Catholic education. Entered the National Guard when he graduated high school, did his 1 weekend and 2 weeks while attending a local college. Fell in love with his wife-to-be, decided it was time to be able to care for a family, married her, quit school, got a full-time job, and supplemented his pay with his service in the Guard.

After a short move out of the area and then back again, started working for a company he would serve for more than 30 years. What he did isn’t actually all that integral to the story, but mostly it was sales; specific, rather technical sales to a very distinct customer base. It was a smallish company that grew and grew and his career grew and grew right along with them. He started at the very bottom and eventually became Vice President and regional manager.

As my mother-in-law will tell you, with no prompting whatsoever, he sacrificed his life and gave so very much to his company. He had to travel most weekdays, and often wasn’t home for days at a time. She was a single mother with a husband, and it was difficult on them all. But it was all worth it. Sure, she had to work to supplement their income. They made a deal, though, she might not get to be a stay-at-home mom, like her peers, but instead, she could be an early retiree, with lots of time for herself later. Maybe she could have to opportunity to be a stay-at-home grandma. But eventually, as the kids grew up, and the school tuition stopped, and his salary increased, she just kept working, not because she had to, but because it gave her the chance to supplement their leisure and luxuries. As a matter of fact, she had taken a part-time job in his office, working on some of the accounting; a perfect arrangement.

For two people without college educations, or even specific vocational training, they had really made it: beautiful house in a rather exclusive neighborhood, bought one son a brand-new Mustang, and sent the other to four years of college without a single student loan to his name. They both drove cars they loved, vacationed twice yearly at their timeshare in St. Maarten, and made pilgrimages to the jeweler’s, where he stocked up on her gifts for the year. They had little debt, a low mortgage payment, and were saving diligently for retirement.

Then, four years ago, his company decided he was replaceable, his salary too expensive. Now, of course, the official reasoning was that they were downsizing top level management and wanted to combine regions for cost savings. They told him over and over again that he was a great employee that they would hate to lose. And that they were so very grateful to him for his years of service. They didn’t know if the company could have grown so exponentially without the contributions that he had made. But the reality was that they had hired a recent college grad and could pay the young man less than half of my father-in-law’s salary, with little risk to their health insurance and a lifetime before they would have to pay out any retirement. Not to mention, my father-in-law had trained him, and had already passed on everything he could.

They offered him a severance package, worth exactly one year’s salary, but with no other benefits. But, if he accepted the package, he had to sign various contracts agreeing to not discuss his ‘resignation’ outside of immediate family and to never sue them for any reason, including age discrimination.

Their life as they had carefully built it, brick by brick, spit shined to a gleaming polish, was over. The company wasn’t going to fire my mother-in-law, but she couldn’t exactly stay, either. If they agreed to the package, it would give them a year to get things back in order, but wasn’t what they were doing wrong? Shouldn’t they maybe talk to an attorney? In the end, he took the package. And he spent the year, not reordering his life, but in a deep, unending depression.

He would never call it depression, of course. He would just say that he was ‘enjoying his time off’. This was a big fat lie. He barely showered most days, and when you talked to him, you’d have thought that the company took his balls when they took his office. The boundaries of how he defined himself were gone. They told friends and distant relatives that he had chosen early retirement, and that he wanted to try a new career path, you know, for fun. Toward the end of that year, he finally began looking for a job. And what he found nearly drove him back into his depression. Sure, he had a lifetime’s worth of experience, but no degree to back it up. Absolutely, his resume showed that he was a great manager of people and resources, but someone with that kind of experience should’ve gotten his MBA by now. And anyway, his prior salary was in no way commensurate with what they were offering. It would be an insult to his talents if they offered him this job.

It’s now three years later. He did go back to school after his year of depression, and graduated in May 2008. He has found a job, part-time, contracted work with no benefits, and little guarantee of, well, much of anything, but it is employment, and it gets him out of the house. My mother-in-law went back to work for the same agency that had hired her when her children were small. She hates it, and dreams of the sunny beaches of St. Maarten. She misses it, they haven’t been back, she hasn’t gotten any new baubles, and the cars that they loved so much are looking a little worn. She keeps sprucing up the dream house, though. Paint and creativity is cheap, she says. It’s best to keep the house looking current and fresh, she says, you never know when you might have to sell.

They are still adrift, in many ways, in their current life, even as they are holding it all together. They’re bitter; it’s hard to realize that the son you put through college makes far more than you now. They see their friends actually heading into early retirement: buying long dreamed for boats, taking month long vacations, having plenty of time for babysitting beloved grandchildren. They know where it went wrong, but how can you even begin to reconsider, for any length of time, choices that you made a lifetime ago?

The future they have planned for themselves is much bleaker than the one they had planned at 40. He’s returned to college again, this time to get his master’s. Maybe, he hopes, when he graduates, he can find something close to what he was forced out of. Or at least he hopes, he can find something to challenge him, something to make waking up in the morning bearable. He doesn’t hope too hard. There are more and more job seekers everyday, and his working experience just keeps getting more and more stale. But he has to keep moving, has to keep doing something. She’ll keep working for the agency. Hoping and waiting for the day she can be the stay-at-home grandmother that he promised she could be all those years ago.

Indianapolis, Indiana

Portrait: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Every Tuesday and Thursday night I make the kind of walk college students
across the country dread. It is a mile-long hike up a busy street to a
hated class; straight up hill- a bigger workout then you will ever receive
at the gym perched on top, looking over the city. The street is
homeless-central, and in the beginning of the school year, when it was
warm and the scent of new pencils and books filled the air, I would pass
one, maybe two homeless people each block. After months of this, same
night, same time, same people, you start to recognize them and they you.
It becomes a comfort; just like passing the same bookstore means I am half
way home on the way down in the early night. The bald man in army
fatigues and sneakers with holey toes on the corner of 5th and Oakland
means I am ¼ of the way to my class at the top of the hill.

When my lungs are about to burst, I take a break next to a building, pull
out my water bottle and smile at the person sitting on the ground next to
me. Sometimes this starts a conversation, a life story, and sometimes
the man or woman just frown and look away. Occasionally they do not even
seem to notice me, rocking and humming to their own beat. But the
stories! The misconception about homeless people is they are alcoholics
or druggies or that they are running from the law. I certainly have
avoided my share of people who look sketchy, who do not come across as
stable. For the most part though, the regulars are down on their luck,
maybe for several years now. She lost her job at McDonalds and the kids
grew up and moved away, so why get a regular job now? It is just her- all
alone- and she feels okay living this way.

Lately I have noticed an increase in the homeless people. As a rule, I
do not hand out money. I am in college, and although it is a public
institute and much more reasonable then many other universities, some
weeks I don’t even have enough quarters to do my laundry. When there are
$600 worth of books you have to purchase each semester, donating monetary
funds is not an option.

However, there are many things I can give. I am a great listener if you
want to tell me your story when you sit beside me on the bus. When I
occasionally I eat out, I always hand my leftovers to the person who looks
a little hungry. But is that enough? In this land of opportunity, where
people from other countries attend public American colleges on scholarship
and we send food to Africa with the regularity of the rising sun, how is
it that people are still hungry, still homeless, still illiterate, still
needy on our own streets? When will we learn that, like my mommy taught
me, you cannot criticize another until you yourself are perfect? And oh
America the Beautiful, you are far from perfect.

I believe in the goodness of people, which is why the government baffles
me. This trillion-dollar bail out? Who does this help? No one I know
personally is receiving any type of stimulus, and why should we feed money
to those who ran what they had into the ground? Take responsibility! You
have to help yourself before I can help you, because if you do not want to
be helped, then you have no hope.

As I sit at my desk in my warm apartment, I can see a man scavenging in
the garbage behind the College of Business Administration. Somewhere I
cannot see there are babies who are cold tonight, and a ten-year-old who
just wants a home. For every time I have been unsure if the $25000 a year
are worth it, times like this show why I am in college, why I am helping
myself get an education, why the late nights, thousands of dollars, and
peanut-butter sandwiches are worth it. Our country is so beautiful, from
the Jersey shore where I was born, the cornfields of central PA where I
grew up, and the valleys of California my aunt and uncle call home. Every
time I see a sunset I am still amazed, and every time I watch the 5PM news
my heart breaks. If we can’t help ourselves, believe in and hope for us,
for the people who care, then we can never help the world. And right now,
the world needs as much help as it can get.

Andrea Coté
University of Pittsburgh 2011
Pittsburgh, PA

Portrait: Paradise, California

I live in Paradise, CA. It's not all the name implies...

Every day it gets a little harder to find the bright spot in my future.

I was raised in a trailer in the bay area of California. My mother sold belts in Oakland so she could buy me milk. My father lived in a van. We were, by the best Californian definition of the word, poor.

Now I am 21 and married, and I thought we were getting by. My husband has never understood what it was to grow up poor, but today I think he’s getting it. Last year we looked at homes to buy and planned to conceive a child. We even talked about names (he favors Alice). Today we moved all our possessions to a studio apartment and I started birth control.

Here are the specifics: I made minimum wage but I had health care and now I am unemployed and swamped with medical bills that have suddenly been denied by the insurance. My husband has managed to hold on to his position in real estate, but now makes 60% less than he did before (see: studio apartment). We used to live in a beautiful house, but then my lack of income caught up with us and we couldn’t afford the rent. I used to pay cash for my college tuition, now I’ve been forced to borrow either from the government or from my in-laws.

The medical bills? In our short lived quest to get pregnant, it turned out that I couldn’t get pregnant. I have PCOS and my doctors don’t smile when they talk to me about children. Finding that out is costing me $60 a month in payments that will eventually total $5,000. My former insurance is thrilled to be rid of me, as is my former job.

I’m going to college to become an elementary school teacher, but I’m terrified I won’t have a job when I get my credential, and then the borrowed money will be for nothing. We have no savings left, it’s all gone to buy textbooks and gas and spaghetti.

I hope there’s a bright spot in my future. I keep hoping there’s a home and babies and clean bills of health, but every night I dream about trailers.

Paradise, California

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Portrait: Spanish Fork, Utah

I read about Cait from Massachusetts and decided now was the perfect time to paint my own portrait. I am the girl that no one thinks exists: I am a 23 year old undergraduate student with no debt whatsoever. By August I will have my bachelor’s degree in English with High Honor’s. I have paid for every cent of my education in cold hard cash. There is one highlight to the start of a new semester and that is withdrawing around $2,000 from my savings account and handing it over to the Cashier’s Office on campus. I work three jobs and take around 18 credit hours of school. I pay for my car, insurance, phone, food, clothing, tuition, books, student fees and everything else. By the grace of my good parents, I am able to sleep in the basement. I owe nothing for my education except perhaps some overdue attention to my social life and the ones I love. The little debt I have is wrapped up in a gas efficient, mediocre car. Some could say that I have it quite nicely.

Truth is, I’ve worked hard to be broke-ass poor and owe nothing. My fiancé makes perhaps the most sacrifices when it comes to my schedule. I am busy 24/7 between a large extended family, work, school and him. Soon I will begin looking for jobs. In Utah, women rarely find huge success in business. Rather they find their success in their homes with their spouce and children. I’ve known for years that my lot in life would be different. Eventually Adam and I will have children, but until then, and perhaps even after, I will be the main bread-winner. My chances are slim but I am a fighter.

English majors have it tough even in the best economy. Many think we’re trained to read books and spell words correctly. Unfortunately this is what President Bush would call a “misunderestimation.” In the past four years I have been trained to think critically about most everything around me including but not limited to books. I have been taught that language and its precision is necessary for a business to survive. I have learned that the key to success comes from dedication and excellent communication. This makes me valuable to companies needing someone in communication, administration and public relations. Yet, CEO’s and HR Personnel end up throwing away the English major’s application for such jobs in exchange for those who picked business, communication or HR majors. The problem is that these majors don’t focus on the same critical skills that I’ve been working in for 4 years now.

My choices stand thusly: Another bachelor’s degree in Political Science, Grad School for a Master’s or PhD program, Law School, Hope of finding a job that actually utilizes my degree or working the three jobs I have now. The economy isn’t getting better and many students are staying in school to ride out the bad situation. I just don’t think I’ll be able to do this along with them.

I have busted my ass to be where I am today. Had I the sufficient income, my credit is such that I could buy a house. This would help the economy as I’d have to outfit the house as well as pay for the property taxes etc. But how can you buy a house if you don’t have the kind of job that allows for such an expense? I’m caught in a catch-22 while others around me are struggling to keep up on their own payments. I am much better off than a lot are. And I really have nothing much to bellyache about except for the prejudices held against the major that I picked and paid for. I have enough in the checking account to make my payments and a little extra to stash in savings for next semester. I work at a job that is unlikely to let me go despite how horribly I hate it. As my 82 year old great granny would say “Thank God you have a job.” And I do.

Spanish Fork, Utah.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Portrait: Boston, Massachusetts

I am that girl everyone loves to hate: the 23-year old graduate student from a well-off middle class family whose parents “help her out” financially. This means they are paying this year’s tuition, cell phone bill, car insurance, a flight home (the cheapest available) at the holidays, and rent (please don’t hunt me down and kill me). Transportation, groceries, books, etc. are up to me. I’ve worked every summer since I was 13 and babysat from age 11. I saved up my money and it allowed me spending money up through my junior year of college (and by spending money I mean money for going out, clothing, transportation, etc) without ever allowing debt to accrue. My freshman year of college I worked all day (45 min. commute) and went to community college in the evenings. I transferred to a 4 year program the following year and graduated within four years. The next year, last year, I worked, over the course of one year, 3 part time jobs and two full time jobs. I also spent two of those months unemployed despite applying to approximately 30 jobs.

My sister graduated from high school last month. Since then she has moved to South America to go to college. My parents couldn’t argue: the university there charges only minimal fees so even with her renting & furnishing an apartment close to the university and international airfare of $2,000 once a year for the next five years, they will pay, give or take, $40,000. That’s the cost of one year at a decent private college or of two years at our state colleges. I certainly can’t complain. Because I’m still listed as a dependent and because my dad earns too much for me to get decent financial aid, paying for graduate school looked daunting. With my sister’s college fund (started by grandfather before he died 15 years ago) sitting virtually unused, my parents offered to pay for my first year of graduate school. I do not know how I got this lucky.

Barring any disasters, major or minor, I will graduate with my Masters and Teaching Certification in May 2010 – despite the school telling me that would involve a virtually impossibly heavy courseload with no time for anything fun or to work. I currently take double a normal student’s courseload, work part-time, and am on an athletic team. It is a wonderful situation, albeit stressful in the way that a graduate student’s life is from time-to-time. I love grad school. But this is only temporary. In just over a year, I’ll have a Masters, teaching certification, and minimal teaching experience. Teachers with Masters earn more than teachers bachelors. Who in their right mind would hire me? A year ago, when I applied to graduate school for a Masters in Education, there was a teaching shortage. Today there’s a teaching job shortage. I’ve considered dropping out and just getting emergency certification, switching to Educational Psychology, staying on for a PhD just in the hopes of emerging to a better market, and becoming a hermit in a shack on the beach. The thing is, the state of MA requires a Masters within a few years of starting teaching. My degree is almost half completed and I would have to start over if I quit now and returned later on at a different university. My hope used to be that a school would be willing to hire me because they wouldn’t ever have to partially pay for me to obtain a Masters. I still have that hope but its pretty dim.

Like everyone else, I’ll ride it out. I figure that I can always fall back on nannying or teach English abroad. Neither is particularly appealing but compared the grave situations so many people find themselves in right now, I am overwhelmed by gratefulness – and guilt. Because yes, I’ll buy the cheapest bottle of grocery store wine, but I’m still able to buy wine when others are going to sleep hungry.

Boston, Massachusetts

Portrait: Fargo, North Dakota

They say we’re recession proof. They say it doesn’t affect us the way it affects the rest of the country. That may be true but we still see the pain the economy has brought to our country.

I have a steady job with a company that is expanding in a time that other businesses are closing their doors. I’m doing better than most people my age and we have been able to pay down debt with our tax refund this year. However, my husband is a college graduate who has spent the last three months applying for jobs. He has spent hours each day sending out resumes and filling out applications. He estimates that he has applied for over 300 jobs. He has had one interview.

I work for a property management company and each day we see people who are unable to pay their rent. People who move in and then leave two weeks later with only the items they can fit in the car. We see more adults applying to live in each home. We receive more checks from government housing programs. We go to court with more people who are simply unable to pay. Our collections department is busier than they’ve ever been and are getting more disconnected phones than actual answers.

We have been brought to a point that I never thought I’d see; where I am grateful that my husband will be deployed overseas this year. I am grateful for the money he makes while training for his mission and for the extra drills that they’ve scheduled. I am grateful that while he’s gone we will be receiving separation pay and a housing allowance along with his salary for the year. Even as I type these words, my eyes fill with tears for the time he will miss with our daughters. I think of the things our new baby will learn to do while he’s gone and how different she will be when he returns. I think of the entire year of first grade projects and conferences and stories that he won’t be able to enjoy with our older daughter. I think of the outfits they’ll wear and outgrow before he has a chance to even see them. The Christmas and birthday presents that they’ll know I bought without him.

I don’t want to live for even a day without my husband but I am grateful that he is leaving. If this deployment wasn’t pending there would be no chance we could pay the rent next month. We would be moving in with my parents and praying for somewhere to hire us in the new town. Instead of watching the heartache spread around us, we would be living it.

Heather Smith
Fargo, ND

Portrait: St. Petersburg, Florida

When I was 14 years old I lived in Johnstown, PA and I witnessed the demise of Bethlehem Steele. This would have been no big deal, except that my father had worked there just shy of 3 years left to retire. He lost his job. So did half the town. Our normal childhood life changed drastically. We no longer had Fruit Loops; they were now Generic O’s. My father no longer went to work, and instead for the first time ever my Mother did. He did odd side jobs and eventually he got called back to work. The Steel Mill eventually closed, thankfully years later and by that time my father was able to retire. However, this experience stayed with me throughout my life.

Since that experience molded me into who I am, I have long learned that happiness is not about what car you drive (for me a 1999 Honda CRV with 125,000 miles on it) or what house you own. I bought a modest 1100 square foot 2 bedroom 1 bath house in April of this year, AFTER the housing prices plummeted and since my credit was amazingly good. (Paid off immense debt after a bad divorce in 2003, it was hard, thank god I sucked up the resentment of it all being his debt and just fixed it!!).

I have been on a savings binge ever since the debt reduction and the purchase of our home. My 2nd and current husband is a driver for a moving company for a living and as you can imagine, not too many people are moving right now. When someone loses their home, they mostly seem to gather necessities and leave the rest. They certainly don’t hire a moving company. I work for a University and have a rather stable job. Between his 30 hours a week (something that used to be 55 hrs a week just a scant 3 years ago) and my full time status we are easily paying our somewhat meager bills. (The key to wealth is not bigger stuff, it is lower debt!!)

We took the offered $7500 ( federal housing tax credit this year for the sole purpose of banking all of those funds in the case of emergency. We would love to put in a new fence (one that is not falling down) and repair the air conditioning duct work (that is sad at best) but we will do neither because those things are not assurances that we will keep our house, but savings are. This is an interest free 15 year loan from IRS.

We already had quite a bit of savings, even after the purchase of our house. One big reason we bought last April of 08 was because we could move into a house and pay the mortgage (tax and insurance included) each month for less than we were paying for rent. This allowed us to lower our daily expenses and yet own our home, something that in the past we could not comfortably afford to do. In some ways I am grateful for this bubble burst because something had to give. We are two adult’s working two full time jobs and yet until this economic downturn we could not begin to afford a home. There’s something fundamentally wrong about that.

I’m scared. I try not to focus on it. I try to focus my energies on ways to save money. I try to stay focused on things I can control. I try to work hard at work and maintain my job. I try to save with coupons and the like. I have cut back tremendously because I’ve wanted to have 6 months of combined savings because who can afford to live on unemployment benefits? Not us.

I’ve lived my entire adult life below my means because I’ve never felt that there were any assurances that my world could not change from Fruit Loops to Generic O’s without any notice whatsoever. So much so that I’ve been eating the Generic O’s as though that’s the life I want to build…because when you do that, there’s much less to lose. In my house, we eat 3 meals, but they are not elaborate meals, never have been.

Upon the first inclination of more trouble to come, I shall disconnect cable (luxury), downgrade my cellphone service (luxury) and cancel my pest control guy (luxury?...not sure but bugs never killed anyone).

Most people can’t make those concessions until forced into a corner. I say make the concessions when you can take the savings and save it. It’s a sad sad state of affairs. Recently a fellow college student told me that she was unaffected by the recession. I reminded her, “You are, you’re just in denial”.

I don’t think I’m better than anyone, because my day might be tomorrow. None of us really knows. My town is full of for sale signs and more than that, it’s full of homeless people begging for a meal. I’ve just graduated with a business degree and I have applied for 350 jobs posted in our area alone in the last month. I have not received one phone call back. I’m grateful I have a job and am hesitant to change jobs in this economy. Last man in is the first man out in a layoff situation. I've now decided to stay put and get my Masters and hope that a miracle occurs in the next 18 months while I finish it.

God help us all because we can all go without Fruit Loops...but we can't go without Generic O's too.

St Petersburg, FL USA

Portrait: Northern New Jersey

I live a few minutes outside of New York City in northern New Jersey. Needless to say, living so close to the city is expensive and everything from groceries to homes are quite inflated. Somehow my husband and I have gotten by the past 4 years living together, though recently it's been difficult. I'm pregnant with twins and, upon telling my previous employer this so they can prepare for me to schedule doctor's appointments and such, I was let go due to "the economy" and a "lack of new jobs" (I work in Human Resources and my primary job is placing, no talent=no need for me).

My initial reaction was to sue the hell out of them, but since they're a well-known luxury goods company and I was just a lowly temp, I came to my senses and moved on. I'm currently doing freelance proofreading from home, which doesn't pay much, but helps with a few bills here and there. My husband has a full-time job with benefits working in the city, so luckily, we have some sort of stability.

I fear the cost of baby items (times two, since they're twins) once my children are born. I worry about how we can provide and hope that we'll be able to handle this new creation of a family. We're excited and scared for the future. We currently rent a home and had hopes of eventually buying one, but by the looks of our financials, that's not a priority for some time. I had hoped to eventually go to graduate school so I can finally get out of the HR industry, but that will be on hold as well. While our dreams and aspirations are certainly attainable, those that require substantial financial support will have to wait.

There's so much more I'd love to share; the fact that even though I have health insurance, almost all of the blood work/prenatal care I receive is not covered in our network, causing excessive bills on top of co-pays and the actual cost of the births. The foreclosed homes in our area, the increase of crime in our community due to those who are forced to steal to get by; the obsessive coupon cutting and penny-counting elders I see everyday, the fear of my 82 year old grandmother having her social security cut; the cost of our heat bills...all of these stresses swirling around, causing one to pause and hope things get better before they get worse.

Northern New Jersey

Monday, February 23, 2009

Portrait: America's Heartland

I am a lucky woman. I have a stable job. I have a wonderful husband who has a stable job. We have a wonderful child who is healthy and day care we can afford. We are not rich and we live paycheck to paycheck, but the paychecks are still coming.

I have a wonderful family. Father, Mother, 3 sisters. My father owns a real estate business. They have a house, 2 dogs, food, good friends and two of my sisters are in college.

I know what you are thinking. Why is this woman writing this story? From my perspective everything looks fine.

From my perspective everything looked fine too. Until I got a shocking call this past November. My father lost everything in this economy. His business, his savings, everything. He couldnt stand the thought of his family not surviving. My father committed suicide. He took his own life so that his family could live. So my mother wouldnt lose the house. So my sisters could stay in college. He took his own life and left us wondering why he wouldnt just let us help. We could have helped. Had we know there was a problem we could have done something, anything would have been better than this. He didnt say a word.

This economy has taken my father away from me. Forever. There is no recovery plan or stimulus package that can help us. Gone.

And now I must pick up the pieces. Explain to my daughter why she doesnt get to see her grandfather anymore. Cry when I pick up the phone to call him, forgetting that he's no longer there. I don't look forward to birthdays or holidays and I cant yet look at pictures of him because the hurt is still too great and I am still not ready to face what has happened. I stay busy so I don't have time to think about it… but I am the lucky one. My father was there when I got married, and when I had my first child, his first grandchild. My sisters wont have that. It doesn't make me feel better knowing that, but it is a fact.

The economy killed my father. I don't think I can ever forgive it.

Heartland, USA

Friday, February 20, 2009

Portrait: Brevard County, Florida

I am a middle school teacher.

The economy is slowly sneaking its way back into my work life.
I have been down this road before, and am terrified I will have to take out my map to navigate its path again.
This time it is different,
I love my job.
I love my school.
I love my students.
I love my subject.
The thought of not being at this desk in August is almost too much to think about.
It is breaking my heart.
We haven't talked about the budget cuts in my classroom, I didn't want to for many reasons. One being I would cry,
another being that this is a very low-middle class school and they are dealing with all kinds of cuts at home.
My classroom is a safe haven from this, and an outlet for them.
Today was different.
THEY talked about it.
THEY demanded to be heard.
THEY have so many ideas, it was overwhelming.
THEY are worried that their voices aren't loud enough to be heard.
But they will,
get ready world,
they are mad and loud and together on this one.
There is a "Save education rally" in my county Monday night.
They all received a letter about it first period- a toned down version of what is to come.
100 million dollars in cuts, just for our county.
No sports.
No buses.
No electives.
No fun.
They are making signs, shirts, WEBSITES!
It is amazing to see them in action,
fighting for what is theirs-
trying to protect their teachers.
So much that I did cry.
The chorus is going to sing in the parking lot-
The band is going to play-
I can't wait to see it.
They amaze me.

Brevard County, Florida

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Portrait: Greenville, North Carolina

I'm an undergraduate student at East Carolina University. This year was a year of firsts for me in the adult financial world: my first W2, my first (and may I say small…) tax return, my savings account disappearing because it was empty for so long, my voicemail box overflowing from the landlord desperate for rent money, my first $500 in credit card debt. I don't consider any of these things products of the economical crisis – they're experiences everyone goes through when they are on their own for the first time; however, as of late, this worldwide money thing I've been hearing about has finally become apparent.

Everything seemed normal before the winter break. Stores were open, the university had plans to build a new student center, and there were rumors the city was finally going to get 3G cell towers. I went to my parent's for the three-week vacation, and somehow missed the downhill transformation. While I was stuffing my face with homemade pecan pie and running around the farm where I grew up, five of the big chain stores in town closed their doors, the university put off the student center plans for at least a year, and the promised 3G was pushed back until June (and I'm sure the day will come when I break down and get an iPhone, at which point I will actually care).

Even though seeing huge, empty stores is somewhat surreal and walking into the student center that became outdated ten years ago is something we all have to deal with, life here isn't that bad. The mall just upgraded to a new management company that promises to bring bigger and better stores (even though it will probably take much longer now), and Fresh Market just popped up, which is odd since fresh organics are way overpriced, and most people I know went there once and never went back.

ECU's transit system, which is one of the best on the East Coast and my employer, just bought three new buses, and will be getting six more next semester. I attended a luncheon with the chancellor last week, and he said that even though the university's budget has been cut fifteen percent overall, everything will be pretty much normal next year. Buildings will be a little warmer in the summer and a little cooler in the winter, and professors will have extremely limited printing abilities (which I like that idea anyway – it saves some trees). We're much better off than some universities that have cut their budgets by up to fifty percent. We'll see how my financial aid turns out this year…

My parent's mentioned something about 401ks and savings, but they've always talked about those things. The economic crisis hasn't really affected me because I sort of grew up in one. We were always well off and I always got what a needed, and even some things I wanted; but there were always fights about debt and bad checks, my mom crying about it and my dad starting yet another business doomed to fail. I learned not to ask for expensive things, and felt horrible when my mom bought me a computer for school. I find myself baffled at the idea of even having loads of money, so it's almost impossible for me to imagine loosing it.

I'm young and new to the whole economy thing. Money has always been this magical entity that appears every now and then, materializes into something I really want at the time, and disappears as quickly as it came. These days it just seems to appear less often, and that's all the crisis has really been to me.

Jason Simone
Greenville, North Carolina

Portrait: Washington D.C.

One year ago, my husband died from cancer. I went from an over-educated, cheerfully employed mother with an au pair to a 34-year-old widow with three-year-old twins who depends on the kindness of friends and Social Security. That was the start of my own personal recession. The rest of the world is just catching up to where I've been for a year now.

I'm still working full time. My family still has health insurance through my employer (a fucking miracle, considering the beating that policy took when my husband died.) But all of my husband's investments had to be sold to cover his debts. Taxes. Attorney's fees. No more au pair. Hello, strange renter living in my basement. Could you please stop smoking marijuana in my house when the kids are home?

I'm praying that the 2002 Subaru holds out for another couple years. I'm praying that the roof doesn't blow away in some epic thunderstorm. I'm praying that the aging washing machine keeps running on a little bit longer . . . scratch that. Now I'm praying that Sears will take pity on me and hook up the new one so I don't have to figure it out myself.

I'm praying for that Stanford bastard to get caught and tell the SEC that whoops, my bad, musta mixed up the last two account numbers, HERE's the money, and my employer gets its fucking money back so my paycheck doesn't bounce. Due diligence, my ass.

I'll put my kids in public kindergarten next year. Goodbye, sweet little Lutheran preschool. I can't afford you anymore. Broken molar, you're gonna have to hang on a little longer. Apparently I owe the heating oil company more than my last paycheck, and considering that Mommy's paycheck is the only paycheck coming into the house these days, we're going to have to live together for another month or so.

I admire single-by-choice moms, whatever route they took to that destination. But I didn't chose. I just get to deal. And that's what really sucks about the recession for all of us. None of us had much of a choice. But we all get to deal.

Washington D.C.

Portrait: West Springfield, Massachusetts

West Springfield, Massachusetts

As the financial news gets wore every day, I look around and KNOW we are lucky. My husband holds a management position for a local company; a book bindery. In a tough economy like this, the bindery does not usually LOSE business, it may even do better-When school districts can't afford to throw out old battered textbooks and buy new ones, the have their old books rebound.

I worked part time after our 18 month old son was born, and since I worked from home, he stayed home with me. However, when he entered the toddler stage, it was time to leave my job and focus on him full time, and I quit in mid-January. I can't even convey the nervousness I feel at the thought of going down to one income in an economy such as this.....But we are car is paid off, we have lived in our house for 2 years and have a normal 30 year mortgage, not some crazy ARM that will screw us.....Still, living on one income is of course tighter than living on two.

And still I see how it is effecting everything around me.......My Father in Law lost over $100K in his 401K, my parents lost over $40K......retirement in the near future is now out of the question for my in laws or my parents, and they are all at or within 2 years of retirement age. My sister is about to be engaged, but workis slowing down for my Dad, so no one knows where the money to have a wedding will come from.

The Springfield Mayor announced they will be laying off 89 city workers immediately. Every time I am at the mall, I notice a new vacant store space that has just gone out of business.

Though my husband's job is secure and financially we seem to be okay, I am still scared. I am always looking for ways to save a few dollars. I take my calculator with me to the grocery store to make sure I stay within budget. I make my own laundry soap and dishwasher detergent. We eat out less, and when we do, we might go some place like Costco, where a Hot Dog is $1.50 (with soda) and a slice of pizza is $2.

I, like many others, try to just remind myself that: A) The most important thing is my family, and if we are pulling our belts in tighter just to be safe and cannot buy all the things we'd like to, well then, a person is not a summation of the things they own. B) we are very lucky not be dealing with a potential foreclosure, layoff, or loss of health benefits.

There have been hard times before and there will be hard times again-I have to have faith that everyone cutting back and learning to live within their means will eventually have a positive effect. Perhaps we will stop being a nation of spoiled consumers who equate material goods with happiness? Once can only hope.

West Springfield, Massachusetts

Portrait: Detroit, Michigan

I grew up in a suburb of detroit about 45 minutes away. Its in Oakland county which is boasted to be one of the richest counties in the country. I, however grew up in the poor side of this rich county. Which to many and most people, understandably, doesn't get me a lot of sympathy. But my parents worked really hard to get us there. They started in a trailer in detroit, actually THE eminem trailer park, bought a real piece of crap in Redford and then got enough money to move us to Walled Lake. My father started his own business which was really successful, until 1999 when he had a heart attack, discovered a heart disease and was forced to sell his pride and joy, the business on doctors orders. My mother worked for the same company since she was 18. Well actually there were two companies, both were real estate builders, different companies but in the same office. They had worked their way up, and right after I graduate highschool in 2002 they moved to their dream house in Highland, also in Oakland County. This is not your typical extra large dream home but it was exactly what they had always wanted. 2 years ago her boss passed away, and kindly enough left her some money in his will, and because they didn't have a retirement plan, this was a huge sigh of relief for my parents. With this money my parents did something they had been wanting for as long as I can remember, which was buy a small trailer on the Gulf coast of Florida. Its really small, very modest, but they love it. After the boss passed away, my mother continued to work for the other company in the office. But when the economy shifted and people stopped buying, their business started to struggle.

They downsized their office...they moved locations...the cut working hours. They did almost everything they could to keep it running but they hadn't sold a new house in over a year. My parents closed on their Florida house about 3 weeks before my mom lost her job. They paid cash for the house. So now both my parents were jobless, they had two homes in an economy that wasn't selling homes, not to mention they had also just helped me put many repairs into my first home. The guilt that I felt for having taken that money from them was almost unbearable. I started trying to figure out ways to pay them back, but with what I make, and having just bought my first home, there wasn't any extra money.

Mom was put on unemployment. They're still not sure what they'll do. They didn't even get to enjoy a stay in their new home before the news of my mom's job loss came through. Since then, I've had an uncle lose his job of over 25 years. And I've had 2 other friends who have also lost their jobs. Other friends have layoff EVERY Friday at their places of employment. It is a literal week to week question on whether or not you'll be working. And all of these people I'm talking about are hard working, college educated, and dedicated people. I knew Michigan was bad, and people were losing their jobs, but its finally hit home. Not just lazy people are losing their jobs.

While many people disagreed with the bailout, there would have been no hope for Michigan without it. And the trickle effect from the Big 3 going under would have been catastrophic for every American.

Detroit, Michigan

Portrait: Singapore

We are a country who cut our teeth to hard work. Our chronological struggle – from a small fishing village to being a colony to the pre-independence days of pure uncertainty, for how can a tiny island with no natural resources survive? – is etched into our collective memory. But we did survie. Our impossibly small island-city has thrived in the last half a century (we’re 44 this year), and has fed off the economic miracles just as we have fended off the economic downturns. This current one is supposed to be no exception. Headlines in our national paper tell us that there is hope. The government is doing all they can to help the work force, the elderly, the sick.

At least that’s what the local headlines report, What they don’t report are the little deaths – when dreams are flatlined by reality.

My friend is like me – 27, armed with a few years of working experience, a degree paid for by about three jobs and late nights. My friend is also unlike me – she’s also married, has a kid, and saddled with the growing responsibilites of a young wife and mother. Her husband has been laid off – twice now – and he’s now delivering ice-cream for a fraction of the pay he used to have. My friend doesn’t earn much, and all she does go towards supporting her little family. This was the girl who used to spend all her pocket money on cosmetics and flashy bags. This was the girl who was filled with vivacity and drive. Now the woman she has become is living from paycheck to paycheck, and has taken up another part-time job just to afford all the neccessities – ‘I didn’t know what it means to have money. I probably never will. But I do know what it means to have very little – my baby seeing me only for a few minutes everyday, and I don’t know how to ever explain mummy’s got to leave you because she needs the money for your diapers.’

My uncle is 40 and his cancer has just came back. For the second time. The tumour is lodged near his brain, and it’s growing. He is self-employed, running a design-and-carpentry business out of the home he shares with my grandmother. When the economy crisis hit and all the major furniture stories slashed their prices, he lost many customers because unlike the Harvey Normans of the world, he cannot afford credit terms or installment plans for his clients. With the lack of income, he was left standing at the hospital without treatment, because the hospital needed him to pay cash before they could ‘authorize further treatment’. We all pitched in, and we will continue to pitch in – this is what family is for. No questions asked. ‘It’s so crass but true – there are days where you think it’s easier to die than to be sick. I just can’t afford it anymore,’ whispers my uncle – an operation to remove the first tumuour two years ago has fully compromised his speaking and swallowing abilties.

My father is not yet 60 but he behaves a great deal older. He’s got Parkinson’s, and his body is cruelly whittled down by the disease. This is a chronic illness – expensive to treat, impossible to cure. He was a teacher for 30 years before he retired and was quickly diagnosed after losing control of the steering one day. That was the end of his driving, but anyway pretty soon it was clear we couldn’t afford the BMW. Good thing we sold it – cars on our tiny island come with a hefty tax and a system where you have to bid for a ‘certificate of entitlement’, which prices the car far higher than what it’s worth. Our effective government’s way of cutting back on car ownership, and hence, traffic. A teacher for the longest time, a ‘civil servant’ as all government service personnel are known as – but he has just been served with a letter announcing the fact that his ‘class A’ drugs would no longer be covered by the pension. ‘I can take the lower grade drugs,’ he says to me dully. But as long as I can provide for him and my family, I wouldn’t let him suffer more than he already is. What I will shelve in exchange for a better quality of his life is my goal to complete my masters before I’m thirty, and of course my dreams of starting my own family, and settling down in my first home.

I’m far luckier than many, I know. I’m young, healthy, and I’m holding down an enviable job that pays me enough. Perhaps the economy will recover, the stock markets will bounce back, and companies will start hiring again. But meanwhile, every day is an elergy to the dreams that die, because we can no longer afford to keep them alive.

Jean Tan, 27

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Portrait: Northern Nevada

I finished student teaching in December. Teaching is one of the jobs that you are ALWAYS supposed to be able to find a job (you know, teacher shortage and all that?). Well, the day I graduated there were thirty posting in all fifty states. No one was hiring. I was not the only one with this problem. I've had several friends graduate with "useless" degrees and mounting student loan debt. I had a friend whose fiance walked out of her, her daughter and their mortgage seven months into the relationship. She stayed at home with her daughter, watching other children in their home. Now, she's facing foreclosure and will lose not only her home, but her career.

Fortunately for me, I found a long term substitute position. Unfortunately, it's in a school district that is talking about closing an elementary school. If that happens, they have to place those teachers into schools, according to seniority. That means, I'm out. That means the newlywed, recent college grad who teaching across from me is out, even though she has a contract. That means teachers are going to be forced to quit or retire or leave their coaching positions to go back into the classroom. Teachers are facing pay cuts, on the large side. And this is not the only district facing these problems. It's statewide. Heck, it's nationwide.

I have no idea what I will do in the fall. I'm looking at having to go to another COUNTRY to teach. Not county. Not state. Country. That means leaving my family. Leaving my friends. Missing important children in my life grow up. Losing time with my father who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.

Something needs to change. It would be one thing if I had an opportunity to go 500 miles away and find a job. But, thousands of miles? That's not reasonable for anyone. Worrying about the economy should not be the biggest concern for a 23 year old college graduate. It should not be the biggest concern for the kid graduating high school with no idea of how they are going to fund their college, but knowing that finding a job, any job is going to be difficult with or with a degree.

Northern Nevada

Portrait: Lewistown, Idaho

I have to say that personally for my husband (28) and I (27), life is good, we both have full time jobs. We have been together for 9 1/2 years married for 3 1/2 years and we do not have any children.

Fortunately we both have jobs that don’t seem to take much of the hit in bad times, why, well my husband is in the beer and wine distribution business and they like to say “when times are good people drink and when times are bad people drink” and possibly more so for the latter. I am a Legal Assistant and there is always work to be done in my field even in bad times when the economy may take a hit these issues do not just go away. So we are gainfully employed, we own a large home that we bought in 2005 after selling our first home for a profit.

We have always seemed to live paycheck to paycheck because typically the more you make the more you spend while living this “American Dream” and we have not made any drastic changes since the economy started faltering, we pretty do what we want and buy what we want, altough we recenetly have been choosing to stay home more instead of going out and spending money excessively. We definitely could cut costs if necessary, we have cable TV with DVR and high speed internet, are insuring three vehicles and there are only two of us. We have a house that is bigger & nicer than either of us grew up in so I do feel grateful that we are able to pay our bills, we still eat out often and overspend recreationally, and we could save more money if it was necessary to do so.

That is not to say that I haven’t seen or felt the tough times, our $288.00 power bill for December was scary and I couldn’t believe that I was actually happy to only pay $225.00 for January, I was afraid it would be over $300.00 so $225.00 was a relief, the increase of the amount has nothing to do with the house it is usually not so expensive to heat, it was the heating price increase that made a big impact. Gas prices dropped dramatically this winter from around $4.65 a gallon to $1.37 a gallon, however that has not lasted long as we are already back to $2.00 a gallon and that makes me wonder how long it will be before they are out of control again.

I’ve definitely noticed the changes also from small specialty shops closing all around us, the increase in cost of consumer products, and the changes small businesses and even larger corporations are making to cut expenses. My brother is out of work and still looking, considering taking a job out of town keeping him away from his wife and children and his wife’s hours have been cut as well, they are both very willing and able bodies who are definitely seeing the effects of a sour job market. My Dad who is mentally disabled and on a fixed income is struggling and unfortunately probably always will be, my Mom passed away in summer 2007 at the young age of 58 and that meant losing her disability income as well, he was able to get his interest lowered on his credit card and is renting out the second bedroom to help make ends meet. Some friends are looking for second jobs to help pay the rent and Idaho’s employment rate for December 2008 was 6.4%, in December of 2007 it was just 2.7%, we are now at 6.6% and the jobs in the local newspaper are few and far between.

Here I am at 27 still thinking and over thinking the thought of having children. As a child my "American Dream" consisted of a great marriage, white picket fence and three children, the older I get and the more responsibilities I have the more I wonder whether or not we should have children. When I think of becoming pregnant the fears take over and all I can think of are the medical expenses, cost for daycare for 40 hours a week, the extra food, the extra clothes, the extra stress on myself, my marriage and our money and an unstable economy does not help to ease my fears on one of the biggest decisions I will ever make in my life.

In the mean time we will keep on working hard and keeping a positive mind set. I voted for President Obama and certainly felt a great sense of hope for a brighter future on Inauguration Day and I look forward to the possibility of better things to come now that we have a new leader to get us through these times!

Lewiston, Idaho

Portrait: St. Louis, Missouri

We moved just as school started. This was supposed to be our fresh start. When I was laid off in 2005, we had to file for bankruptcy and lost our house. A friend sold us her trailer for less than most used cars, so we were able to stay in the school district, but it was very old and very tiny. We went from having over 5 acres to living in a trailer park. It took me a year to find another job and a month later, my husband lost his. He was out of work for eight months. He finally found a good job, it paid ok and though it was far away, he commuted with a friend and it was steady work. When my sister took over my parents’ restaurant last summer, my husband went to work for her. It was a pay cut, but he really wanted to get back into cooking and we both liked the idea of supporting the family business. We decided to move close to the restaurant since our old trailer wouldn’t make it another winter and gas costs were getting out of control.

Now, I’m not so sure. I love being closer to my family. We have a beautiful apartment that is so much larger than the trailer. But, I miss our small town. I miss my close circle of friends that were always there for me and each other. I’m worried for them, I’m worried for us.

We’ve been hearing about it for months, seeing effects for months, and now they are circling closer and closer to home. Our hometown corporate identity, Budweiser, was sold. The Chrysler plant closed. A tax hike for the transit system failed so we may have to start driving our daughter to school when route cuts start this spring. There were layoffs in the shop at my company (I work in the office). People at my husband’s work complained about fewer hours. Then a friend is laid off from her job. It’s tough, but she’ll get by. Her husband still works. Another friend is laid off. This friend is the sole support for his disabled wife and their daughter. We worry and bring food when we visit because we’re not sure they’ll manage on their own.

Now my job is cutting back. The cost of my health insurance will no longer be covered by the company. I already pay for the rest of the family, but I saw the new rates, and we just can’t do it. My husband is beginning to lose hours, as well. We both work in luxury industries and I’m tied in with construction. Our move tripled our housing costs. Even though the savings in gas essentially canceled out the difference in housing, everything else costs more in the city. Household goods, toiletries, and, the big one, food (I have two teenagers at home).

We know how lucky we are. My daughter goes to a wonderful private high school and both kids have braces. All of that is paid for by my parents. My kids will have the college education I didn’t, also thanks to my parents. They couldn’t afford it for me, but they can do it for them and I am grateful.

So we’ll cut a little, here and there. Try to put by a few dollars, just in case. We’ll try to help others where we can. We’ve always lived on the edge. Sometimes it was on the edge of poverty, sometimes on the edge of middle class. We’ll manage somehow. Soon the kids will be old enough to get part time jobs at the restaurant, join in the family business. We hope. All we can do is hope.

St. Louis, MO

Portrait: Blue Ridge Foothills, North Carolina

The economy in NC had already taken a hit when I moved here at the age of 30 in 2001. The furniture companies were gone except for the dinosaurs, the names that real buyers trusted. But we started to see even the largest of companies start to back off. The market was dwindling they kept saying but it didn't mean a lot to us at the time. We were educated artists, we were writers and performers and we worked in the trenches for the government during the day to pay for our spotlight Jones at night.

We foolishly did not see it coming. We experienced some warning shots but passed it off as the effect of bad behavior by the ex; why couldn't she work and get her PhD? We took the children on to our governmental benefits and tightened our belts to make up. So what, we couldn't travel as much.

In 2007 my husband lost his job with the county agency he'd put 10 years of blood sweat and tears into and along with it the major health benefits. The environmental agency I worked for experienced severe cutbacks due to defense spending and political priorities. I lost any hope of a permanent full time job doing something I passionately cared about. On the up side I started to get paid at the theatre instead of just volunteering and my husband created a lucrative freelance business and got in with a small publishing company that fit his style and time schedule. Along with these new promises came out of pocket insurance coverage for a family of four with a couple of high-risk individuals. We suddenly understood what Hillary had been talking about all this time. It was the beginning of the end and the long slow slide that has brought everyone to their knees.

We cut the satellite, the TV, didn't replace a broken microwave, and eliminated entertainment from the budget. We rent movies for a dollar a day at Redbox, and the kids come with us to our Theatre and Symphony performances for a night out. We've come to rely on the kindness of comps. We don't eat out. We cook chicken legs or thighs at least once a week.

So the last thing to go was the health insurance. The ex has to apply for Medicaid (bless her republican heart it's killin her!) and I just hope I don't get pregnant before I can afford the $500 IUD. Let's not even talk about the $150 a month anti depressants.

So far the worst it's gotten is out of cat food, out of gas, 15 days late on rent, and no paycheck until next week. We make it as far as we can then float a check at Wal-Mart. At least they're good for something…

The future continues to look bleak. The Arts are dying. We lose donors every day as banks and car dealers close their doors. The environment has to not implode until the stimulus money gets here next December. Our county social service agencies can't afford to pay their people gas money to check on at risk kids.

We've started to talk about garden and living space sharing among friends. So when the Internet is gone and my privacy is down to nothing, living with everyone I trust in the world and canning vegetables; essentially living my Grandmother's life, I guess it will be as bad as it gets. And frankly, it's starting to look pretty damned good.

Blue Ridge Foothills of North Carolina

Portrait: Bradenton, Florida

My husband and I married while still in our teens and had our first and only child just four months later. We are worker-bees, both of us. Always have been, always will be. We worked long hours at our pizza restaurant jobs for those first few married years. We scrimped and saved but still lived paycheck to paycheck. We only bought what we could pay cash for except for our house and our cars. We purchased a modest two bedroom fixer upper when we were barely considered legal. It needed work but it was ours.

Over the years we remodeled everything in the house from new drywall to new flooring. New bathrooms. New kitchen. Everything brand new. The paying cash for everything had gone out the window by this point but we both had steady jobs and we didn’t live extravagantly. We decided that it was time to sell while the housing market was hot and we could make a hefty profit.

We begin looking for a new home. We found what we thought would be our dream. An empty lot for sale in a very nice, non-deed restricted neighborhood. My sister worked for a construction company and our friend did mortgages. We couldn’t have planned it better. We put a bid in on the lot without even thinking twice. We paid full price for it, we had no choice if it was what we wanted. And boy did we want it!

Due to various mishaps, the financing took a lot longer to go through than anticipated so construction was delayed. The delay caused additional unforeseen costs and budget overages. The delay meant selling the first home for a hefty profit had to wait.

Ground was broken in June 2006 for the beginning of the dream house. The housing market in Florida fell off the face of the earth in December 2006. We moved into the dream house in January 2007. We decided to rent the house that wouldn’t sell. No hefty profit. No extra money to pay off the bills that had accumulated due to the cost overages and construction delays. No extra money to partially pay down the new mortgage. Nothing.

We were lucky, the house rented right away. We thought we had a good tenant that may buy the house before his lease was up. Hope springs eternal.

Then came the economic downturn that crushed the auto market. My husband was a manager of an auto parts wholesale warehouse. He made decent money and the job was what we thought was stable. In June 2008 they closed his store. No notice, no severance, no paying out vacation & sick time due to employees. Nothing.

We were lucky that he found a new job after only two months and with great benefits. We were unlucky that it was at a large pay cut. We were also unlucky that just after settling into the new job and beginning to adjust to the reduced pay, our tenant moved out without notice. Two mortgage payments, a job making significantly less and a ton of bills that should have been paid off with the sale of our first home.

Still, we are making it somehow. We are worker bees, neither one of us shy away from long hours, hard work and tedious tasks. I am lucky to have a good job with good benefits. He is lucky to have found a job with good benefits and a fairly stable future. We take on extra tasks and work for a little extra money here and there. We will find a new tenant to at least cover the mortgage on our other home and we are surrounded by good family that will help wherever they can. We will never be destitute. We may struggle and live paycheck to paycheck but we still have each other. Isn’t that what really counts?

Hope springs eternal again!

Bradenton, FL

Portrait: London, UK

All over the place companies are going bust and closing down, or letting go staff, sometimes very suddenly. It all feels shocking, but truthfully it isn't so. Many saw this coming from far away, and even the ones who aren't astrologers have felt the rumblings building up to this the past few years.

Nonetheless, knowing that doesn't mean things aren't upsetting and although the situation in the UK is by no means desperate, almost everyone is feeling the pinch.

On the other hand, the English national mentality thrives on adversity (just look at how treasured Charles Dickens is, with his mean Victorians and ragged orphans and hard times). "Mustn't grumble" is something which is often uttered in the face of both fiscal ups and downs. The English just batten down and carry on, and in a way it seems easier because nothing makes an Englishman more mistrustful than the notion of things which appear to be going too well. The English are on the whole a modest nation of modest requirements, able to extract pleasure from circumstances that would wither the soul of many a European (their national ability to determindely sit on inhospitable beaches on windy days is a testament to this, as is their passion for bird-watching and conservation and trekking around the countryside; even the uninspiring biscuits speak of a people who fully delight in small pleasures, and generally disturst anything which appears to be too sumptous).

There are other things which make our circumstances significantly easier. The healtcare is still free, and not having to worry about what we'll do if one of us gets ill significantly improves my quality of sleep.

True, the economy is bad. Money is tight. As it is I can't remember the last time our bank accounts were in credit at the end of the month even though we have significantly reduced our spending (no shopping except for the baby, only going out once a month etc.)

My husband and I are not English. We have lived in worse economies. I can remember winters where we only had electricity for a few hours a day - trying to bring water to boil over a candleflame, sitting wrapped in blankets around a radio powered by generators. When money was worthless and at the end of the month companies paid people with items to trade (cigarettes, shampoo, tampons). I remember the sense of irony and despair my mother felt when all she could purchase with my father's life insurance payout was two kinder eggs.

And whenever I begin to feel oppressed by all the things i cannot do or buy or enjoy, I remind myself that I am not my possessions and the idea of ecnomic security is illusory as everyone who trusted in Madoff can attest to. My family is alive, healthy, loved. Without that everything else is worthless. With that, we can make the rest work somehow.

Our way of life, our governments and our worldviews may not survive the coming decades but we will.

London, Uk

Monday, February 16, 2009

Portrait: Sweetwater, Tennessee

Two years ago in April my husband and I made the leap, we made the American Dream come true for our family. We bought our first home! We moved into a wonderful neighborhood filled with children that our kids could play with. A neighborhood that is composed of hard working people that look out for one another.

A year ago I lost my job. It wasn't much of an income but within months we felt the hit. We went through our savings quickly. My husbands company split, his income stayed the same but there were some downfalls. No more Christmas bonus. No more incentives. We missed the money terribly. We don't live above our means, we don't buy things that we don't need. Hell, I cant remember the last time I had a new outfit or a new pair of shoes. We have two young boys and a baby on the way, there is no frivolous in our vocabulary! Im not even thirty years old and it seems that we will not ever be able to be on our feet again after this.

This past Friday, we moved from OUR house. We are renters again. We lost our house to foreclosure and they will be auctioning it off in March. We were living the so called "American Dream" but nobody ever said to live this "dream" and be dirt poor! We couldn't imagine living in this house, paying way more than we could afford and all of us suffering for it. We took the steps of calling the "hope now" and all the other government programs out there.

The problem with these programs.. your mortgage company does NOT have to participate in them. So after a year long battle, we walked away. I have come to the realization that we are going to be ok and that house did not make us a family, but I feel like I let my kids down terribly.

We are not the only ones effected in our county. Our unemployment rate is over 11% for a very small county. Industrial plants are closing all around us. My cousin works for a major boat manufacturer, they have laid off twice in less than a year, now they work three weeks out of a month and draw unemployment for one week out of the month.

Our schools are suffering. They are cutting budgets and letting teachers go left and right. We have schools literally falling apart and no money to fix them.

People are stealing and breaking into homes. Our once small, safe town where "everyone knows your name" is turning into a place I am not so sure I want to be anymore, but where would we go? Everywhere is turning into the same place.

Sweetwater, Tennessee

Portrait: Summerville, South Carolina

I called my husband one day a few weeks ago to ask him something random and he was already on his way home. It was 10 o clock in the morning. After 12 years with the same commercial building company, my husband has been laid off, he had come home to have a beer to help numb some of the shock.

He was one of the original employees of the company, only two other people had been there longer. He had been assured time and time again that the original group would always have a job. My husband loved his job, he was very dedicated and worked so hard to get where he was in his business.

Now the aftermath, we have a mortgage, a kid, and two car payments. The company used to pay my husbands truck payment, so now that is a large bill we have never had to pay before. They also used to pay for all of his gas. Our 10 month old daughter has some medical issues so health insurance is a must. So that adds to the ever growing list of bills we used to not have to pay. We immediately cut off the cable t.v., got rid of the land line, stopped eating out, etc. We are hording our money, hubby gets one more paycheck this week and a small severance check. I have picked up extra hours at work to try and help. I have a college degree that has done me no good and only make about 10 dollars an hour. I keep thinking every little bit counts, every little penny. We are constantly going over the bills and looking at the bank balance.

We live in a nice house and drive nice cars but have not been super frugal when it came to saving.We are in our early 30's so we still felt we had plenty of time to really save. We were doing well for people our age. We have the usual 401k , not that that is worth much these days, but our regular savings took a beating last year due to a change in health insurance before the baby came. Our deductible had gone from $1500 to $5600. Damn, looking back I wish I could have had the baby a few months earlier, would have been a 1/4 of the price. If we continue tightening our belt we can get by for about 6-8 months,we are not factoring in for unemployment benefits, they will probably not even be 1/2 of what our usual take home was. The stress is taking a toll on us. We are putting our house on the market. We don't need the weight of a house payment and we may have to move so we can find work. In this market we will be lucky if anyone even comes to look.

As bleak as things at our house look, we know that they could be worse. The fact that we can safely pay our bills for the next few months and not go hungry softens the blow a little. We are hopeful, we have to be, our little girl is depending on us.

Summerville, SC

Portrait: Detroit, Michigan

If you asked 100 people what city they considered to be the hardest hit in this economy, 95 of those people would say Detroit. Its a city with a name that elicits the strongest response from people, whether we have a bad economy or not. But its a city I love. A city that has created some of the best memories for me.

My entire life has been spent in the suburbs of Detroit. For 25 years, Detroit has been a mere 15 minute drive. I went to college downtown, my husband has played thousands of shows with his former band there. I have spent many years of my life fighting off that Detroit stereotype, because to me, the city has always felt alive. When I was a little kid, my dad worked at the General Motors building downtown. During the summer they would have these outdoor parties with tons of food and musicians and people dancing around, loving life. I never grew up knowing that Detroit was bad, I never feared the city the way out-of-towners did. Maybe I was jaded, having grown up in a semi-wealthy household, I was fortunate to never know what "going through a hard time" meant.

Detroit has always had a reputation for being rough and dirty and barren. A place you would never want to be at night. There have been a few performers to come from Michigan with their over exaggerated stories of growing up dirt poor in Detroit (by the way, Kid Rock is from Romeo which is about 45 minutes away from downtown and it is a really nice place to live). The now infamous 8 mile road was materialized in to a crime ridden "ditch" that separates the rich suburbs from the poor city.

But that was years ago. When people think of Detroit nowadays, its not an Eminem biopic that comes to mind. Its a crumbling car industry, a mayor scandal or a frozen body in the bottom of an elevator shaft. Its everything that people have thought for 50 years but 100 times worse. While I still feel that life coming from downtown, I also feel the fear and sadness. Its nerve wracking to check the news, to wonder what awful thing will happen today. The entire nation was on the edge of their seats during the auto bailout debate, but nobody held their breath more than Michigan. One evening, many months ago, when my husband and I were driving on the expressway to downtown, we caught a glimpse of the Detroit river skyline, with the Renaissance Center standing above the rest of the buildings, the GM logo catching the last rays of the sunset. And it suddenly hit me, what if this bailout doesnt happen? Our city, this beloved place of mine, would not survive. But it did happen, much to the nations dismay. The bailout wasn't a miracle, however, and the problems of this city are far from over. But when I stand outside of the old Detroit train station, all 18 stories of broken glass and graffiti, I know we will be okay. Because the spirit of the people of Detroit transcends time and crumbling architecture. I just hope to see the change in my lifetime.

PS: Mitch Albom wrote an article called, "The Courage of Detroit". Its a little long but worth the read. He sums up the feeling of Detroit better than I ever could.

Detroit, Michigan

Portrait: Southeast Minnesota

I am a 2nd grade teacher in a good size school district in SE Minnesota. We have known for many years that in preparing for the 2009-2010 school year the district will have to cut somewhere between 8 and 14 million dollars. The less that is cut for next year will be added to the amount that is necessary to cut for the 2010-2011 school year. The greatest cost for any school district is the teachers' salaries. In our district, teachers are cut according to their seniority. Since I have only officially taught for the district for 2 years, it is possible, if not probable that I will receive a pink slip in my box in the next month. This has unleashed many questions for me, because I would almost prefer a pink slip so I could pursue other jobs that would be more enjoyable for me.

There are things that I love about teaching. However, on a daily basis I do not look forward to going to work, and am drained, unhappy, and grumpy when I leave. In my mother's generation, when you obtained a good paying job that would support your family, you kept it. Wasn't your favorite? Didn't look forward to going to work? Were so tired when you got home that you didn't have energy for your family? It was never a thought that you should start looking for a job that you were happier and more fulfilled at.

Our generation is completely different. If we do not enjoy our job, we want to start looking for a better one. Which brings up the question, is there a perfect job out there for everyone? I believe it's unrealistic to think that you can obtain a job where you love everything about work. Although I would embrace the opportunity to look for a career path that is more enjoyable for me, I also know that my husband and I made a choice to buy a house and have a baby and as the major bread winner in our family, I know that I need to take care of these responsibilities that I chose. Obviously the best option would be that I would be able to find a career path that I enjoyed and was fulfilled by and was able to continue supporting my family on.

I also feel guilty when I see other teachers who are great teachers, who love their jobs and look forward to coming to work each day. By keeping my job, I may be forcing some of those teachers out of the job that they enjoy and excel at. On the other hand (hopefully without sounding too conceited) if you look at my data, my kids make great academic strides in my class. Is it fair to those kids that I give up teaching?

One of the greatest deciding factors will be my son. When I come home from teaching I have given all of my energy, attention, and patience to my kids that so desperately need it during the day. I come home as a mom that I do not want to be. A mom that does not have energy to play with, bathe, and read to her son. A mom that will yell at him when he makes a mistake. In a list of importance, first is obviously providing for my family but second is being the mom that I want to be to my son.

If I don't get laid off and decide to teach next year, it's also not going to be a very happy place to teach. We will miss a lot of teachers, custodians, cooks, administration, and clerical staff that were not so lucky to keep their job. These people have become my friends and I will miss them and also worry about them because they have lost their livelihood. Teachers will be asked to make greater strides towards the standards that each student is asked to meet with less money for supplies and tools to get there (like, you may make one copy each month, choose wisely!).

I think of my grandma and grandpa who were just thankful to have a job and worked their careers not even thinking of their enjoyment of their work. They worked to provide for their families and that is all they thought about. To them, leaving a well paid job to pursue one that is not, for enjoyment reasons, would be unimaginable.

During this difficult time, I turn to my faith and my deep rooted belief that everything will turn out the way it was meant to be. I have employed this belief for about six years and since then, that faith has not let me down. Does that mean that my life always makes sense to me, certainly not! That I have had an easy ride, not if you ask me! But I also consider myself lucky and am happy with who I am, who I choose to walk through life with, and even though some challenges in my life don't make sense at the time, I always learn from them and eventually see why it was important for me to go through that challenge. I look forward to seeing what it was that I was meant to learn from this struggle.

SE Minnesota

Portrait: The Bronx, New York

I live in the Bronx, but I think my portrait represents all of NYC. I graduated from community college last May with my Associates in Applied Science, Nursing. I passed my boards at the end of the summer and am finally a licensed RN. During the fall I resigned from the job that I had during school because I had some medical issues to deal with. I wanted to focus on fully recovering so that I could be 100% ready to start my nursing career in the new year. While I was home I sent out resumes, emailed hospitals, recruiters and posted my resume online. I've also signed up with multiple medical staffing agencies, but most of them require 1 year of clinical experience. I got a call back from a hospital, but unfortunately did not get the job. I'm sure there were hundreds of applicants. I've received a couple of reply emails from hospitals/recruiters that tell me they're having a hiring freeze. And the hospitals that are hiring are only hiring experienced nurses and those with Bachelor degrees. A couple of my friends have been able to find jobs. Most of them were able to get them last summer right after school. Unfortunately, I was not able to plan that way because there were other things I needed to deal with.

I think there are many reasons nursing grads are having a problem finding a job right now. There are medical facilities that discriminate against Associate degree nursing grads because we do not have the 4 year degree. I took the same licensing exam they did and I did really well on it. So they are better than me because they took a couple of more classes than me? I worked full time for 4 years while going to school on nights and weekends. I'm very determined, but I guess there are those that don't get that when they see my 2yr degree. And the yearly salary differential between an 2 yr degree nurse and a 4 yr degree nurse is around $1,000 - $2,000. Not a big difference.

Another reason is that the hospitals do not have the money that it takes to conduct orientations for new nursing grads. Depending on the unit you are on, a newly graduated nurse will go through an orientation and shadow a nurse. This costs money. Money the hospitals do not have. So even though there are units that are understaffed, newly graduated nurses are not being hired. Instead, most hospitals get experienced nurses from medical staffing agencies that will fill a void for a couple of months or whatever the need may be.

It was recently announced that two hospitals in Queens, NY will be closing because the company that owns them has gone bankrupt. So now all of those nurses will be looking for work along with the thousands of nursing grads that graudate throughout the year, and the thousands of unemployed nurses. I know many people in my same situation. A friend told me that a recruiter recently told her she had 1,000 resumes for just a couple of positions. There's a website called allnurses(dot)com where nursing students, nurses, etc. can go and write on message boards about all kinds of topics. I've read so many stories from all over the country that are so similar to mine.

I live with my parents and help them with our living expenses. I'm very grateful for having them because they were there for me when I was home recuperating. I saved money while I was working so that I would still be able to pay them rent while I was unemployed. I stopped working in October and my funds ended in the beginning of February. I felt really bad that I still did not have a job and that I was not able to keep helping them. I decided to file my federal taxes early just so that I had some extra cash and help them out. I received a phone call from a recruiter that suggested I move to a couple of states in the MidWest. I am not able to do that. I help my family and they need me here.

My dream since I was little was to be a nurse. This is all I have ever wanted to do. I worked very hard to get here, but now I feel like I'm stuck in mud. I've been trying to stay positive and believe that the right job for me will come. But I do have my bad days when I just want to yell until the windows break from the frustration. And then I remember that I do have an apartment to go to, family to help me, food, and a warm bed at night. Unfortunately, there are MANY out there that are doing far worse than me. I pray for them. There is not much that I can do to better the economy. I just hope that those that can make a difference will do what is in the best interest of ALL of the people in this country. A girl can dream, can't she?

The Bronx, New York

Portrait: Santa Clarita, California

I’m twenty-years-old, and don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate. I know what I want to do. I chose English as my major because I want to bring my love of literature to high school students. I want to go to LAUSD. Now that teachers are being laid off every day, now that budgets are being slashed (again), now that no one’s hiring for English, only math and science…I don’t know how I’m going to live after college. I can’t get a ‘real job’, one that pays me more than ten an hour, because I don’t have a degree. Getting that degree is increasingly more difficult, because I don’t have the money which would allow me to get the most out of my education. I commute an hour to school every day, and an hour back every night. Unlike most of my peers, I’m not eligible for financial aid—my parents make enough money to pay my tuition, so the system doesn’t care about the strain that those costs put on the rest of our lives.

In comparison to what a lot of people are going through, these concerns don’t seem so weighty. If I lose my job (which I very well may; more people are starting to see that Gymboree classes are luxury items), I will still have the same roof over my head. We can afford to pay our bills every month, which is sadly more than some of my friends can say. But the previous generations have a habit of saying that the children are our future, that everything rests in the hands of the next generation….well, I am the next generation, and I don’t know where to begin. How am I going to finish school? A Masters Degree is almost a necessity; how will I pay for that? Where will I get the money to pay off my student loans? How will I ever be able to afford an apartment, a house, a family? When I move out, am I going to be living from paycheck to paycheck? What if there’s a hiring freeze, or what if teachers go on strike? How am I going to make a life for myself when other people’s lives are falling apart? If someone could tell me where my generation is supposed to go from here, I’d very much appreciate it.

Santa Clarita, CA

Portrait: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I quit my job four days after the stock market crash in September. I was working as an advertising copywriter, and it was supposed to be “the job” – that first real, salaried job out of college, the one I’d been scraping for a year to find. It wasn’t what I’d hoped – as the new employee, and the one who least shared the interests of the tiny company’s owner’s, I was the fall guy. Even the intern passed work off to me. I learned pretty quickly from the girl who’d vacated the position a month before that it would always be this way. There was no where to go but out, and so I did, leaving my key on the desk a few minutes before noon, emailing my bosses a curt good bye, and flying home on my bicycle, finally relieved of the nervous stomach ache that had plagued me for the month and a half I’d worked there.

I work at a coffee shop now, making roughly $200 less than my monthly bills. A combination of savings and tips have carried me through the past four months. I just picked up some contract work for a company I worked for last spring and summer, so I’ll be okay as long as I keep hoarding money like a Depression widow. My café is near a lot of corporate offices, and the people being laid off, or on the verge of it, have a lot more than I do to worry about. These are people who have been with their companies for years, who have families, who thought they’d earned some security from years of service. It’s different for me. I graduated from an arts program in a country on the verge of a recession. I’ve been on the brink of disaster since birth. I’m used to this. That’s not to say that I like stretching $7 worth of groceries for three days, or living without insurance, or working 50 hour weeks on top of trying to write, but I can do it. I don’t really have the choice. I know a lot people whose families have helped them along well into their 20’s, and it’s hard for me not to be jealous sometimes. After a while, you start to think that you’ve built enough character that you deserve a free ride. It’s not going to happen. The most I, or anyone can do, is keep going, not because it’s easy, or we want to, but because there aren’t any other options.

Jaime, age 23
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania