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Tumbling from middle-class security, and struggling to regain it

The lingering legacy of the Great Recession is a Great Slide, as job losses, declining home values and devastated retirement savings knocked many Americans down the socioeconomic ladder.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM

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.

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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.

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