Falling out of middle class into a life with less

Five years ago, an automated voice on the phone would not have reduced Sondi Moore to tears. But five years ago, she was not behind on her electric bill.

A couple of days after Christmas, Moore, 63, called Dominion Virginia Power to pay her bill, which was overdue - again. She was desperate to avoid having her power cut off, which is what happened in November after she racked up a tab of $1,026.

Not so long ago, Moore and her husband, Seymour, 46, made more than $200,000 a year, vacationed in Fiji and thought nothing of picking up a $400 dinner tab with friends.

But then Moore left her property management job to set up a cat-sitting business, and her husband lost his job as an IT consultant nine months ago. They now scrape by on Sondi Moore's Social Security checks, her husband's unemployment benefits and a trickle of money from her nascent business. Total income for 2010: $30,000.

More than a year into the recovery, the economy is starting to show signs of improvement. The stock market has rebounded. Corporate profits are soaring. And yet, for millions of Americans, the lingering legacy of the Great Recession is a Great Slide, as job losses, declining home values and decimated retirement savings have knocked them down the socioeconomic ladder. For the formerly middle class, this slide plays out in big and small ways, from a loss of identity to the day-to-day inconveniences of life with less.

There is the single mother from Manassas who after losing her job and going on public assistance could no longer afford to pay her mother to watch her children and had to send her mother to child development and CPR classes to qualify for public child-care assistance.

There is the laid-off TV repairman who 30 years ago received a degree after studying Greek, Latin and Hebrew and now, facing meager job prospects, regrets having chosen to work with his hands.

There is the well-dressed couple who after losing their jobs in the auto industry pulled into a food pantry in Gaithersburg in a gleaming, gas-guzzling four-door truck they had bought for fun a few years ago and now wish they hadn't.

The recession exposed how precarious a hold many middle-class families had on their status. The housing meltdown and credit crunch wiped out nest eggs and the ability to maintain a credit-fueled lifestyle.

Now, as many Americans see work as the only way to dig out of debt, they're finding that jobs are scarce. The average duration of unemployment has reached record levels, as has the proportion of jobless people who have been out of work for more than six months. For those who have slipped a couple of income brackets, that means a long road back toward the middle class, said economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute.

Bills overpower optimism

Seymour Moore has been trying to find his way back since his IT job at a local university ended in March. In 25 years, he had been out of work only once before.

"We thought, 'Any day now, we'll have a job,' " his wife said.

Even before Seymour joined the ranks of the jobless, bills had started piling up. During his previous spell of unemployment several years ago, he and Sondi burned through their savings and $100,000 they had parked in 401(k) savings plans.

At the peak of the boom, aiming to clear their credit card debt, they took out a loan against a house in North Carolina that Sondi had inherited from her parents. When they could no longer afford the mortgage or utilities, they put the place on the market, praying that they could unload it, even for less than what they owed.

When the power at their Fairfax City house was cut off in November, Sondi and Seymour got used to seeing by flashlight, eating cold food and lingering at the houses of Sondi's cat-sitting clients just to be warm. The last time they had gone without electricity for that long was by choice, when they went diving on a private island in Fiji.

In November, Sondi Moore called Dominion Virginia Power seeking help and was referred to the county human services office. Within 10 days, she paid $600 of the power bill; a caseworker covered the rest by cobbling together small amounts from utility assistance programs.

"It was the first time we'd ever had to turn to people for help," she said. "It was hard to admit we were drowning without a lifeline."

Then, after Christmas, when Moore called five numbers and spent an hour on the phone to Dominion trying to avoid losing her power again, an automated voice informed her that she had to pay a $3.95 fee to settle her bill by phone. But she could not get the machine to tell her how much she owed. Moore called back, hoping that the phone system would kick her to a human being. Instead, a pleasant, mechanized voice told her to please hang up and dial again.

"I just want to pay my electric bill," she said, her voice cracking. "How many hoops do I have to jump through?"

An hour later, she tried again, got through and paid. The power stayed on.

'Everything snowballs'

Shortly after she and her husband, Shawn, lost their jobs within two weeks of each other in 2009, Katherine Thorne, 29, found herself waiting in line to fill out applications for welfare and food aid in Prince William County. In the course of a summer, that double whammy dropped the Thornes from a combined income of about $80,000 to public assistance. She had been an office manager for a Federal Aviation Administration contractor in Herndon; her husband was manager of a Foot Locker store that closed.

"Once one thing happens, everything snowballs," she said. "We went from living comfortably and happy to everything was wrong."

As they entered financial free fall, the couple split up. She stayed in their townhouse with their three children, now 13, 3, and 2, struggling to pay the $1,300 rent. One by one, the utilities were cut off. She fell behind on the rent and soon found herself staring at an eviction notice.

Thorne visited the human services office in Manassas Park for the first time and took a number. She ended up receiving food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A local nonprofit group gave her transitional housing.

She also got help with child care, but not without some doing. When she was working, she paid her mother $600 a week to watch her two younger children. But for Thorne to get assistance with child care, her mother had to be certified and take child development and CPR classes.

The hassle of paperwork and waiting in lines was nothing compared with the long hours at home without the structure or security that a job can provide.

"The stress on me made it harder with the kids," Thorne said. "I was so stressed out. I would say, 'Mommy doesn't want to play right now.' "

She spent her time looking for a job and found work at a dollar store as a stock clerk, then became a dispatcher for a plumbing and heating company, where she makes a little more than half of her former salary. She is also pursuing a degree in business administration and human resources, hoping to qualify for a higher-paying job. Her husband, who provides child support, found work as a manager at a nearby Bob Evans restaurant. She and her children still rely on food stamps, Medicaid and TANF, but those payments were recently cut from $300 a month to $50 because her $11-an-hour job means she makes too much to qualify for most aid.

Little indulgences

When Tawana Eason lost her administrative job with a large federal contractor six months ago, she went from making $60,000 to eking by on $400 a week. She has downsized from a $1,300-a-month townhouse in Germantown to a $600-a-month apartment in Laurel that is half the size of her old place.

Eason, 44, no longer shops at Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, although she likes to window-shop sometimes at the Mall in Columbia. She has traded down from the Grill from Ipanema to Olive Garden and had to content herself with giving her sister a CD for Christmas, a far more modest gesture than the cruise she sent her mother on a few years ago.

Despite these changes, her identity as a middle-class person is intact. "Do I go into the stores and walk around? Sure," she said. "Just to kind of see. . . . Like I said, this is temporary. I'm not 'woe is me.' I know there's somebody out there whose situation is worse."

Sondi Moore still feels like a member of the middle class, even though she has also had to give up nearly all of the small luxuries she once took for granted. She and her husband cut out cable long ago. They splurged on rabbit ears, and instead of watching "Real Housewives," they make do with "Russia Today." Her stove is broken. If something doesn't fit in her toaster oven, she doesn't eat it.

When she was a property manager of high-end apartment buildings such as the Watergate, designer duds were practically her uniform. She'd think nothing of spending $250 on a pair of shoes or buying a new blouse every week. Now, if she dons a silk blouse, it's hidden under a dark sweat shirt and paired with sweat pants. She can't afford to keep her hair frosted blond anymore. And since she had cataract surgery three months ago, she has been walking around with one lens missing from her glasses because she doesn't have $100 to replace it.

She still drives a sports car, her 1997 Mazda Miata with more than 200,000 miles on it, holes in the roof, a window that no longer rolls down, and no heat or air conditioning.

The one little luxury she has maintained is a manicure. She goes once a month, rather than weekly, as she used to. Her hands and her diamond necklace are the remaining hints that not too long ago, she led a much different life.

In her new life, ordering pizza is an indulgence, one she appreciates in ways she never could before.

"It tastes better," she said. "Everything tastes better when you go without."

 
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