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For Many Americans, Nowhere to Go but Down

After losing their jobs, Scott and Kelly Nichols watched their finances and options dwindle, eventually making the tough decision to move their family to Kelly's mother's basement in Michigan.

"Okay," Kelly says.

The people who have just agreed that they are out of options sit in silence, wondering the way out.

* * *

"It needs to be paid," she insists. The $40 installment on their Kmart layaway plan is nearly a week late.

"That doesn't leave a whole lot of money," he says. If they pay the $40, they will have $31 for themselves, their 2-year-old daughter and his 17-year-old son until their next unemployment checks arrive in five days.

"This is why we have no money," she says, irritated, fatigued.

These are the conversations that pervade Scott and Kelly Nichols's days.

How did they get here? How did their every other exchange evolve into a riddle that includes the refrain "How much?" followed by "How much do we have left?" How did their horizon become a basement in southern Michigan?

Nearly four years ago, in search of better pay, Scott Nichols took his older brother's advice and followed him to where he had moved years before: northern Indiana and the flatlands of Elkhart County, the country's largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.

"The RV Capital of the World," as Elkhart's leaders say.

Scott got a job on a paint crew at an RV plant, and by the end of 2007 his income had climbed to $53,000, more than he had ever earned. After work he was the man at the bar with the thick roll of bills, the man he had always wanted to be, buying round after round for himself and his friends. The man with "the full pocket," as he liked to say. He took his son on a fishing trip. He took his family out to eat and told them to order whatever they wanted.

Then gas prices soared, the economy unraveled and demand for RVs plummeted. Over the course of a year, Elkhart County's unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent to more than 18 percent. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, the casualties including Scott, and Kelly, who worked in accounts payable at another RV company. The crisis in Elkhart drew the attention of President Obama, who traveled there within weeks of taking office, and plans another trip to the county on Wednesday to further focus on the economy.

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