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From middle class to working poor

Steve and Suellen Daniels never imagined that in their mid-50s they would struggle this much.

Kai Ryssdal: We're in Atlanta today ahead of Super Tuesday. As I mentioned earlier in the broadcast, though, David Gura's been here for a couple of days poking around, seeing what he can see. And David, you went up north of town?

David Gura: About 30 miles up to Cumming, Ga. That's in Forsyth County. Still, pretty rural. Part of the metro area, but still a pretty rural area. If you peek through the pines you can see Lake Lanier down there below the hills. And I visited with Steve and Suellen Daniels. They've been here for about 20-25 years. And like a lot of people here in Georgia, they moved here from out of state. Steve got a job with a tech company, he got a job with Digital, which was bought out by Compaq, and then bought out by HP a little while later. And in 2008, he left HP for a new job with a startup company.

Ryssdal: Which you have to believe is bad timing. I don't know where this story is going, but you have to believe that that was not great timing.

Gura: It was bad timing. About six months after he joined that company, it went out of business.

Ryssdal: You said they came 20-25 years ago, whatever it was. And I was talking to Mayor Reed about this, about how Atlanta a boomtown for a lot of those 20-25 years. Not the case today, especially not up and coming in Forsyth, where you were.

Gura: That's right. Forsyth was one of the wealthiest counties in Georgia. That's changed over the last couple of years and Steve told me if you want to see how Forsyth County has changed, just pick up the local paper.

Steve Daniels: On Wednesday, whenever the legal notices are published, it becomes two to three times the size. There's been weeks where it's like 25 pages of foreclosures. And it's just, it's amazing. It's like, I had no idea there was that many houses, much less, in foreclosure.

Steve and Suellen bought their house in 1988, and over these last few years, they've struggled to keep it.

Suellen Daniels: Between the two of us, we've got five part-time jobs, and we've got some bookkeeping clients who have paid us extra to do just handyman work around the house.

Those clients also give them clothes and groceries. Tonight, it's frozen pizza for dinner.

Suellen: They were on sale and they're our favorite ones, so? Steve likes this one, not because it's cheese, but because that's a blank canvas.

The kitchen has been renovated. Suellen says she loves to cook. In 2008, when Steve lost his job, it was a shock. They'd just gotten back from a trip to Europe, where they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Steve was sure he'd bounce back, but within a matter of months, they'd emptied their retirement accounts and they went from middle class to the working poor.

Bill Bolling runs the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Bill Bolling: Twenty percent of the people coming in today to ask for help, report they've never asked, in their whole life, for anybody to help them feed their family.

Bolling says this economic downturn redefined who the poor are.

Bolling: We always thought those other people were different somehow. Now it's somebody down the street, or it's your brother in law, or somebody we've worked with before.

Steve and Suellen Daniels say they weren't really aware of the poverty in their county until they became poor. At church, Suellen learned there are children in Forsyth County who go to bed hungry.

Suellen: I'd never heard that before. I mean, I was still in my own world of pain. This was only six months in for us, and I can remember clear as can be, reaching over and putting my hand on Steve's knee and saying, "Not on my watch." We're going to feed those kids.

That was a transformative moment. A year ago, they started a group called "Meals by Grace." Every week, they cook and deliver food to needy families in Forsyth County. It has given them a new sense of purpose, and it's made Steve think about how to tackle big issues like poverty and the economy, which stymie Washington.

Steve: A lot of that animosity, a lot of the energy that we spend there, if we could redirect that in a more unified way, we probably could solve the problems quicker.

Politics and gridlock drive Suellen crazy. She knows she wants change, but looking at this election, she doesn't know where that could come from? So she's tuning out.

Suellen: You, quite frankly, don't have time to care a whole lot. You just get frustrated, and it's like -- just do something, 'cause this is not working.

Steve and Suellen say they're busier than ever. In Suellen's kitchen, there's a calendar covered with Post-it notes -- appointments and odd jobs, donations to pick up. This isn't what they thought their mid-50s would be like.

Suellen: I don't know what we're going to do. I mean, our daughter bought a house with a finished basement so we'd have somewhere to go, and that's really sad because you think that's really not what I want. I love my daughter, but I don't really want to have to move in and live with them. But at the same time, you think, we're not going to be able to work until we die, so what are we going to do?!

Gura: And Kai, Suellen has come up with a term to describe the situation she's in. You've got nouveau riche, you become wealthy overnight. She calls herself nouveau poor. Suddenly poor, she's got to figure out how to get benefits, how to sort of survive without the money, without what she used to have.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's David Gura, in a trip up to Cumming, Ga., in Forsyth County. David, thanks a lot.

Gura: Thank you.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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There are some blank spots in the story and that makes it frustrating to listen to. Ben_G points out the major issue: the "within a matter of months" line. What did these folks have in the way of a safety cushion?
That issue should have been explored. Apparently it should have been more.

Once again, I find this very depressing especially for my outlook on my future career. In this podcast, people who have worked their whole life, never asked for help to feed their families, came back from their 30th anniversary to find out the husband was fired; in a matter of months spent their retirement money on food and supplies alone? Please tell me this isn't the world we live in. I remmeber when all I ever saw was old people driving around their new Mercedes Benz or BMW, now they are spending their money on food? Excuse me? Shame on you America, not only is this unethical, it's just depressing to know this is happening everyday. I am only 16 and this is what I have to look forward to? I guess I would've been better off in the depression where at least everyone was poor and gave each other the same respect, now its dog-eat-dog. Shame is the only word that comes to mind.

Wow. That was awesome and I believe it will open peoples eyes up to reality. I wholeheartedly agree with Suellen that regardless of politics, everyone knows there is a dire problem and something must be done.....asap.

Thank you, Ben_G for raising my questions. Twenty years of homeownership, reasonably good jobs, and their retirement savings last only "a matter of months." I really think Marketplace reporting needs to come up with the full story on this. That doesn't make sense.

Thanks, Marketplace, for a story that makes plain how common as well as unpredictable the slide from middle-class to working-poor can be. So many Americans like to think of poverty as the natural, even just outcome of moral failings -- laziness, weak willpower, bad decisions, etc. -- as if for fear that they themselves will be dragged down into the mire simply by recognizing our common vulnerability. And of course it's easier to vilify individuals than to analyze the flaws of a vast financial-political system. But like Mr. Bolling said, "We always thought those other people were different somehow. Now it's somebody down the street, or it's your brother in law, or somebody we've worked with before." And: "Steve and Suellen Daniels say they weren't really aware of the poverty in their county until they became poor." May many listeners of this segment be hit by that kind of realization -- and respond to it with attitudes and acts of greater compassion in their daily lives going forward.

Eloquently spoken. Thank you Ciesse for your view, I agree with you.

There are more people like this than people realize. We know some of them and some of them literally can't afford to sell their homes because they can't afford to take the loss.

One thing that struck me though was the fact that their retirements savings only lasted "a matter of months". I'd be interested to know the story there. I assume they lost a lot of it during the market crash?

I am 46 and our household has almost 3 years of salaries in savings. If the bottom fell out and we lost both incomes we could probably manage to eek out 4 years. I'm wondering if we're really outliers in that regard? Our incomes are not that high, both in the $60k range. We spend sensibly but we're not especially frugal, we eat out and fly and travel and stay in nice hotels. We buy new cars. It may be the fact that we have no kids.

Yeah BenG, you actually kind of are outliers in that regard. You'd be surprised at how many people in their 40s and 50s have mortgages and only a few thousand dollars in savings. Even people with good jobs. I don't get it either, but it's true. People in this culture tend to spend whatever they have.

Yeah BenG, you actually kind of are outliers in that regard. You'd be surprised at how many people in their 40s and 50s have mortgages and only a few thousand dollars in savings. Even people with good jobs. I don't get it either, but it's true. People in this culture tend to spend whatever they have.

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