It's no less than a diminution of the American dream.
Sixteen months into the worst recession in at least a generation, six in 10 Americans are under economic stress, a third call it serious stress -- and cutbacks are raging, from restaurant meals to charitable giving, family vacations to spending on the kids.
The impacts are apparent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll -- in the data, and even more powerfully in the own words of struggling Americans. As G-20 policymakers convene in London, these results show the economy's impact back home, at the kitchen table.
Some of the tales are dire: "We don't buy extras. We stay home. We shop at stores that have the least cost," said a 45-year-old woman in Michigan. "We don't use credit cards. We have cut back on everything we could. We contacted the mortgage company to lower our house payment. If things don't change soon, we are going to lose everything."
"I do not spend unless I have to, because I do not know what tomorrow is going to bring," said a 53-year-old Pennsylvania woman. "I cut back on food and going anywhere."
And for a 37-year-old mother in California: "I moved to cloth diapers that I wash myself. I have cut my phone bill in half. I have attempted to cut back on cable with a new plan. ... I am not eating out -- we're better about that."
She has plenty of company: Sixty-three percent of Americans say they're cutting back on their overall spending; three in 10, cutting back sharply -- a tremendous retrenchment in consumer behavior. Topping the list of seven specific items tested in this poll are restaurants: Sixty-two percent say they're going to restaurants less often. But there are plenty more cuts: Forty-six percent are giving less to charity. Four in 10 have dropped or postponed a vacation or delayed car-buying plans. A third have put off buying major appliances.
Among parents, a third have cut spending on their children's activities, such as music lessons, sports programs or summer camp. And nearly one in four Americans say they've canceled or delayed a doctor's appointment or medical test.
These levels of cutbacks are significant in terms of their direct effect on retailers, charities and service providers, their ripple effect on the broader economy -- and equally as much in their personal impacts on the daily lives of ordinary Americans.
For some, it's about choice -- trimming luxuries or nonessentials. Others are cutting coupons, buying generics, carpooling, brown-bagging lunch. For yet others, the economic realignment is more profound.
From a 20-year-old woman in Ohio: "My husband and I are moving back in with my mom."
From a 35-year-old Georgia man: "We are living on a budget. We used to spend everything we made. We are using surplus income to pay off debts. I took a part time job for additional income."
From a 21-year old man in Michigan: "I am going to community college instead of a university."
And from a 38-year-old South Carolina woman: "We are cutting back on groceries and clothing. The kids aren't going out. We are struggling."
Relief seems distant. Boosted by hopes for the Obama administration's recovery efforts, expectations for the economy's future have grown less grim: While 36 percent say it's getting worse, that's down from a 28-year record of 82 percent in October. And while just 27 percent say the economy's in fact improving, that's a four-year high.