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FACES OF THE DOWNTURN, FROM 1A

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Faces of the downturn

The sagging economy isn't affecting the poor alone. This slump is taking its toll on the middle class as well.

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • We want to put a face on the story of the economy. We are looking for people who won't be embarrassed to go public. Contact Elizabeth Leland: eleland@charlotteobserver.com; 704-358-5074.



After the hairdresser's husband lost his job, they sold one car and took their son out of private school and put the motorboat up for sale, and she figured they'd get by on her income and her husband's unemployment checks until he found work.

Six months have passed, his unemployment is about to run out, and he hasn't found a job.

And now, with the economy in such disarray, she wonders if he ever will.

Then what? She doesn't know.

People like her who assumed they would never have to worry much about money are now worrying. This time, it's not just poor people getting poorer. Middle and upper income families are feeling desperate, too. The diversity of people affected, says UNC Chapel Hill professor Jim Johnson, is what makes this downturn so distinctive.

And, for many of us, so frightening.

These are some of their stories.

One man fears his marriage won't survive, two years after he moved his family here thinking he and his wife could easily find jobs in our booming metropolis. But they still haven't found jobs and the unemployment rate just keeps edging up, now more than 7 percent.

“The stress,” he said, “is exhausting.”

Another woman began seeing a therapist because of the helplessness she feels after investing $100,000 in Wachovia stock just two days before the stock crashed.

Most of these people don't want you to know who they are. They're embarrassed. And who wouldn't be? You work hard, you live within your paycheck and, if you're lucky, you save a little. Then something like this happens.

The hairdresser

“Please,” the hairdresser said, “don't use my name.” She lives in a beautiful house on a beautiful piece of land near Charlotte and most days she makes a point of putting on makeup and a nice outfit, hoping no one will notice the cracks in the pretty picture.

“I think you have so much pride,” she said, “you don't want people to know how low you've gone.

“Or,” she added, “how much lower you might go.”

Her husband worked as a warranty repairman for a builder, but no one is hiring. She is 50 and has tried not to get all worked up and worried. But she made no money two weeks ago, and only $100 last week, because her customers are hurting, too. One way women save money is by going longer between perms and colors and cuts.

She understands, of course. But understanding doesn't pay the gas bill or the $9,000 she owes for surgery on her broken arm because they have no health insurance or the $800 a month in car payments. It doesn't ease the stress on her marriage or quiet her son's fears.

“When my mom was living, she told me ‘Everybody in this world has problems. You can ride down the street and point to every single house and everybody's got problems.' It gives me shivers just thinking about it. I talk to a lot of people, you know, and that sure is the way it seems now.”

The single guy

Paul Bellin is 46 and single, one of the few people who didn't mind his name in the newspaper.

He said he lost his job as a claims adjuster in the insurance industry in April, and has been living on unemployment checks and savings, without any health insurance. He thought for sure he would find another job by now.

“It's getting scary,” he said. “A lot of employers say I'm over qualified and they're concerned I won't stay long, but I'm willing to do anything.”

If he hasn't found work after his unemployment runs out next month, he said he'll leave Charlotte. Maybe even take up his mother on her offer to move in with her in Wisconsin which is something he never would have imagined.

“The hard part,” he said, “is trying to keep a positive attitude, to just keep going forward and believe that things are going to work out. I have to remind myself there are a lot of people who have it worse.”

The father of 3

The hard part for a 63-year-old Gastonia man has been telling his three children “No.”

No, they can't afford to buy that. No, they can't afford to go out.

Even though he has a good job, earning $100,000 a year in a consumer and commercial finance company in uptown Charlotte, the family is in trouble. He said he and his wife bought a $199,000 home with one of those balloon mortgages that have been the undoing of so many families. They were able to switch to a fixed rate but $1,700-a-month is still too much because they have to pay back $35,000 on a credit card and another $35,000 he borrowed against his 401(k) retirement plan.

They put the house up for sale three years ago, and they still haven't found a buyer.

“God help us!” he said in despair.

The commuter

Money started getting tight for a 31-year-old woman from Cornelius when gas prices started going up. She manages an office in Gastonia 39 miles from her condo.

Then two weeks ago, she got a letter from her company saying everyone's pay would be cut 10 percent and their health insurance premiums would go up. “That,” she says, “is huge.”

She now works four 10-hour days to save on gas, and may try to find a part-time job.

“I'm not a high-maintenance lady at all,” she said. “I lived within my means.” But she's not sure whether she'll have means enough.

She knows what can happen. She works for a title insurance company and estimates more than 80 percent of their business is now foreclosures. In Gaston County, where the office is, foreclosure filings were up 11 percent last month; in Mecklenburg, up 12 percent.

“I've seen so many people lose their homes,” she said. “I don't want to lose mine.”

The retiree

Dr. Wallace Early isn't worried about losing his house. Or going hungry. He is 85, a retired optometrist with a pension and retirement income every month.

He feels fortunate. But he's worried for his children, his grandchildren and the country he fought for in World War II.

“My daddy died and left my mother with six children, and the oldest was 13 years old, and there were twins and a baby. She had a third-grade education, working three days a week, making 35 cents an hour. I have lived with nothing,” he said, “and I could do it again.”

For someone who grew up with so little, saving money became his security. He said he had “quite a bit” invested in Wachovia stock.

As the stock has suffered, so has his sense of security.

“The problem is I don't see anywhere to turn,” he said. “Everything you do seems to be wrong, whether you cash in or reinvest. For retired people particularly, it's just wiped out for the rest of our lives.”

Not just their savings, but their hopes and dreams.

The rest of us

“People are having to decide, ‘Do I pay my mortgage or do I pay my medical bills? Do I pay for gas or for food?' And in some instances they don't have a choice,” said Johnson of UNC Chapel Hill. “There are so many people out there who are hurting.”

The hairdresser's sister got laid off and had to move in with a neighbor.

A client lost most of his pension.

Another client lost her job, is moving out of state and came in for one last haircut.

That's one less customer for the hairdresser.

“When,” she wondered, “is it ever going to end?”

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