Sour U.S. economy has put 40% of Americans on edge

And in St. Louis, rumors began to swirl that Anheuser-Busch might be taken over by another company.

Cuker grew more concerned in the fall, as financial institutions such as Lehman Bros.filed for bankruptcy or were taken over by federal regulators or other banks.

"I remember sitting there and ... thinking to myself, 'Holy cow. This isn't good,' " he says.

In October, Cuker got the second job that brings in an extra $5,000 a year. It came just in time. In November, Belgium-based InBev completed its takeover of Anheuser-Busch. By Christmas, Jennifer's job was gone.

The family's income dropped from about $93,000 to $47,000 a year. After paying their $1,700 mortgage and some of their roughly $50,000 in credit card debt each month, Cuker says, there's barely $200 left.

So they tap their savings, and weigh every expenditure — from an ice cream cone to a haircut.

"Sometimes you can't afford to get food," he says. "We just scrape whatever's in (the pantry)."

Jennifer remains unemployed, but is searching for a job.

In February, Joe tried to get food stamps and make payment arrangements with his credit card companies. But he was turned down for both — because he earned too much money to qualify for food aid, and he already had the lowest interest rates offered on his cards.

"What's most stressful is trying to be proactive and responsible," he says, "and that doesn't get you anywhere."

Joe Cuker is part of the age group that worried about money the most. About 43% of people 30-49 who were surveyed throughout last year said they had worried about money the day before, according to the poll.

"They're planning for their families' futures," says Frey. "They're going to be the mainstay of people older and younger than them. And they're just scared."

Latinos feel the strain

Among ethnic groups, Latinos were the most likely to be concerned, with 42% saying they worried about money the day before. Blacks were close behind, at 41%, while 35% of whites and 35% of Asians said the same.

"Latinos are probably the most aspirational of all the groups in the U.S.," Frey says.

During the last decade, "They got a foothold into the suburbs. They got a foothold into the housing market, and now it's all crashing down around them."

From 2000 through 2006, the unemployment gap between Latinos and non-Latinos virtually disappeared, says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director at the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

As the recession has deepened, however, the gulf has returned.

In February, the unemployment rate among Latinos was 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only the rate among black workers was higher, at 13.4%.

"A lot of the job losses have come in construction and ... among foreign-born Hispanics," Lopez says. "I think this uncertainty about jobs is partly what's driving this uncertainty about finances."

In July, as Starbucks said it would close 600 of its shops and Congress began steps to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Marta and Alberto Torres of St. Louis began to have troubles of their own.

At the factory where Alberto Torres worked, bosses started cutting overtime that added at least $400 a month to the family's income. By October, workers were being laid off.

Marta Torres was relieved when her husband was spared. But she cannot keep her worries at bay.

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