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

"Of course, whenever he tells me someone got laid off, we feel fear," says Torres, 39, who works as a program coordinator for Catholic Charities. "What if the next one is him?"

Together, the couple bring home roughly $50,000 annually. They have bought groceries for friends who have lost their jobs. And they are helping struggling relatives in Mexico, including her father, who was diagnosed with cancer in December.

"When things are bad here in the United States," Torres says, "they are worse there."

Black workers losing ground

For more than a generation, black workers have struggled to gain financial parity. Now, the economic downturn threatens to erode what gains have been made.

"African Americans make on average only about two-thirds as much as non-Hispanic whites," says David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on policy issues of particular concern to blacks.

"Now you have real fears of losing jobs, so under those circumstances, it's not at all surprising that the feeling right now is of great economic anxiety."

Less than two years ago, Verna Weeks, 41, and her husband, Abdullah, 37, of Wilmington, Del., earned more than $160,000 a year.

He was a church administrator. And her real estate appraisal business was doing so well, she eventually cut back her hours at State Farm Insurance, where she'd worked for 17 years.

Then, at the end of 2007, Abdullah lost his job. He found work in late February 2008 as a repair specialist for Apple, but Verna says her anxiety has lingered.

"There were times when you went to sleep thinking about it," Weeks says of their money woes, "and I would wake up, and that would be the first thing on my mind."

The fallout from the faltering economy was all around her throughout 2008. She received fewer requests for appraisals, and her dream of becoming a full-time entrepreneur began to evaporate.

In August, with their household income cut nearly in half, the Weekses chose not to buy their children new school uniforms.

By October, Verna Weeks was asking to again work full time for State Farm, but "because of the economy," she was told no.

Her worries go beyond her front door: Her sister is facing foreclosure.

Yet it was in December, when Weeks' in-laws said they no longer could give an allowance to her children, that Weeks became outright fearful about the future as well as the present.

"To see them. .. start saying no to even their grandkids ... it's frightening," she says. "When I'm 60, am I ... going to be able to do anything for my grandkids?. .. Will we even be able to retire when we want to?"

Rakia Clark, 30, of Manhattan stands on the cusp of the two generations most likely to be nervous about the economy.

She remembers a moment in September that seemed especially ominous, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain suspended his campaign to focus on the financial crisis.

"It just seemed more urgent," says Clark, who was then an editor at Kensington Publishing, earning more than $50,000 a year.

When some of her friends began to get pink slips in October, "I made it a point to pay off all the remaining debts I had," she says. "I knew if necessary, I could live off of Ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts, but I didn't want ... to owe anybody money."

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