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Fallout The Recession in Six Figures

Squeaking by on $300,000

Laura Steins lives in a New York suburb where Wall Street's boom years pushed the standard of living to astonishing heights.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

HARRISON, N.Y. -- The live-in nanny is the first downstairs. She packs the school lunches at a kitchen window, overlooking three acres of velvety grass and little streams that slope toward a gate with a sign that says "Birch Hill."

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Upstairs, three children begin to stir.

In the midst of cheese omelets and Honey Bunches of Oats and vitamins placed next to folded napkins, the lady of the house descends.

"Morning," says Laura Steins, 47, wearing a dark Armani suit and take-charge heels. Her blue eyes are lustrous and her skin is golden, and even with wet hair and no makeup, she radiates confidence.

But she's months overdue for a visit to her colorist, a telltale sign of economic distress for a woman such as Steins. The smell in the basement could mean a crack in the septic line; unlike a $200 hair appointment, a plumber will be in the thousands. And from the breakfast table comes one more urgent need from a 10-year-old.

"At my birthday party, every single girl had a phone," says Katie Steins, making the case that an enV2 phone with matching cover is just standard in her crowd.

Steins kneels down to face her daughter. "If you continue to tell the world how undesirable your phone is -- it's not a flip, it's not a swivel, it's not an LG -- you will not have a phone."

Steins takes a breath. Life in this $2.5 million house was built on the premise of two incomes, not the income of a divorced mother of three in a tanked economy. Her property taxes are $35,000 a year, the nanny is $40,000 and the gardener is $500 a month.

"I can ride this storm out," says Steins, which means having tiger-striped hair and getting her kid a generic cellphone and ignoring the stinking basement.

Birch Hill is a majestic property of tender grasses and low stone walls and a whimsical sculpture next to the swimming pool. To the untrained eye, the long economic downturn as viewed from here and beyond -- the hedges and country clubs of Westchester County that stretch to Long Island Sound -- has been hard to see or feel.

* * *

In Detroit or Southern California, empty auto plants and foreclosure signs continue to give evidence of a terrible fall, but the moorings of affluence are firmly in place in Laura Steins's world. The sandwiches at Patisserie Salzburg are still wrapped in wax paper and tied in pink ribbon. The pool at the Apawamis Club is open for the season. At Fong's Hand Laundry, the pressed shirts are still folded into brown paper and knotted with twine.

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