Escaping the middle class squeeze

Jeremy Hobson Jan 11, 2008

Escaping the middle class squeeze

Jeremy Hobson Jan 11, 2008


Tess Vigeland: This week, banking giant Capital One cut its profit forecast by 20 percent — and it’s blaming you.

The company’s customers are behind on credit card bills and home equity loans, but how can anyone be surprised by this?

For years, the American middle class has used plastic as an extra source of income.

Yes, they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. But as Jeremy Hobson reports, Paul’s now knocking on the door.

Jeremy Hobson: This is happening all across the country: middle class families facing financial nightmares.

Cathy Busby: I am a divorced female, 48 years old. I have no savings, no retirement, so I’m living paycheck to paycheck.

Cathy Busby lives in Denver. She got an adjustable rate mortgage a couple years ago, figuring she would refinance out of it before the rate went up.

But she couldn’t: foreclosures up and down her block caused a drop in property values and now, she’s stuck with mortgage payments that keep rising and that’s creating a domino effect.

Busby: A lot of my bills are on hold. Somebody gets paid this month and next month, they don’t get paid and somebody else gets paid.

Ellen Lindsey: My name is Ellen Lindsey, and I live in Urbana, Illinois, and we owe lots of money to lots of people.

Lindsey works as a secretary. Her husband is in manufacturing. They make about $60,000 a year between them and their credit card debt is astronomical.

Lindsey: It’s probably close to $35,000.

Lindsey says much of the debt was incurred right after her son was born. He has Down’s syndrome and had to spend months in the hospital. Since then, missed credit card payments have pushed the interest rate on some of that debt as high as 28 percent.

Lindsey: We have no money because we have these bills. Some of the bills we incurred for play things and some of it was absolutely needed. There was no question. There was credit on the credit cards and we had to use it.

Adriene: My name is Adriene. I’ve been the sole source of income for my family.

Adriene lives here in Washington, DC. Her husband lost his job and hasn’t worked in several months.

Like many of the people I spoke with, Adriene was hesitant to talk about her problems in public. She asked that we not use her last name to protect her two teenage children.

Adriene: I would hate for them to have some stigma attached to them, some teasing that results from “oh, I didn’t know you were in that situation.”

Adriene earns about $50,000 a year for a family of four in a major city. She also has Crohn’s disease, plus:

Adriene: I don’t have health insurance, so then that means if anything should happen to any of us, that’s… when my son’s playing football, my mind is always thinking, “Oh my God, please don’t get hurt.”

With such a tight financial squeeze, you might think Adriene would also have huge credit card debt. Amazingly, that’s not the case.

Adriene: If I can’t pay for it by way of cash, then we don’t need to have it.

Hobson: That’s almost an un-American philosophy at this point.

Adriene: Probably is.

Hobson: Did you ever think that you would be in this situation?

Adriene: No, I did not, because as a child, I didn’t know what it meant to have to worry about bills being paid or any of that. But in my adult years, it’s a part of my reality.

Same goes for about a third of American families making between $35,000 and $75,000 a year, says Professor Edward Wolff at New York University. They face serious financial troubles and they don’t want to admit it.

Edward Wolff: It’s kind of an embarrassing situation for a lot of these families. They’re in the middle class, they consider themselves middle class and middle class families aren’t supposed to have these problems.

That denial, he says, is leading to a over-reliance on credit.

Wolff: They have to keep borrowing just to maintain their normal consumption standard.

So what do the three women we’ve met plan to do about their situations?

Cathy Busby in Denver got a cheaper cell phone plan and dropped cable altogether and she’s making sure to make her minimum credit card payment every month.

Busby: It’s $15. That’s the one thing that I can pay. My car note is actually $355 a month, so that has to wait. $15, I can pay. You know, that’s the compromise in my mind that I’ve made.

Ellen Lindsay in Illinois is thinking about bankruptcy, but she’s desperately trying to avoid it.

Lindsey: If my husband and I have to do without something or make do with what we’ve got, that’s fine. As long as we have a house and the baby’s fed.

And for Adriene here in Washington, DC, scrupulous budgeting is getting her by for now as she waits for her husband to find a job.

Adriene: And the goal is not to dig a hole so deep, that we can’t get out of.

In Washington, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace Money.

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