Pennsylvania Firefighter Works Three Jobs to Support His Family: Part 1

Chris Smith works as a firefighter and as a paramedic in two different towns to support his wife and their children.
8:11 | 01/14/17

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Transcript for Pennsylvania Firefighter Works Three Jobs to Support His Family: Part 1
A year and a half ago, we posted some questions, starting with this one. What is the American dream? So many of you remembered it as a parent with a job, a modest house, maybe a family vacation and the kind of education that would give the children even more opportunity in life. I remember that dream, too. My parents grew up on farms in southern Kentucky. This was the house where we lived until I was 4. They rented it when my mom was a schoolteacher, my dad in the Navy, so thanks to the gi bill, they got a house in a subdivision, a family street, with picnics, and 4th of July parades. But so many of you also wrote us about the stress and the struggle of trying to reach that dream today. I'm actually having to work three jobs and my husband works three jobs as well and we're still not able to get ahead. Back when I was a kid, my father worked, my mother stayed home. My father's income was enough for us to survive. When I was growing up it was achievable. The white picket fence, being able to own your own home. I feel like we can never catch up. It's like you're stuck. You got to get the millionaires and the billionaires in Washington to start worrying about the working class people. Because they want to -- You think they don't know, don't care? I think they forgot. Reporter: Two facts. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. Economy has been growing. But those at the top are getting more and more of the money. The top 20% have 14 times the wealth of the rest, the 80%. The largest inequality on record. And for the first time in half a century, the majority of the young people in the middle class are not earning as much their parents did. Which is why long ago we started driving around the country. This is a stop at wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania, this fire station. Pennsylvania's bravest. I learn that 40 out of 68 full-time firefighters here have to work at least a second job. Though they say a generation ago, a firefighting income could support your family. But firefighter Chris Smith simply will not give up on that dream for his children. Chris Smith has three jobs he works on rotation. His schedule is a rubik's cube. Three nights of February, I'll get to sleep in my own bed. Every other night, I'm working somewhere overnight. Reporter: We're there as he gets ready to go to work at his first job. Firefighter on the night shift. I have to be clean shaven for the fire department so our masks will form a good seal on our face. Spare Yun for uniforms for every job I'm going to. Reporter: Job number one at the firehouse. 15 straight hours. We are heading out on a call. Possible structure fire. Reporter: Job number two is as a trained paramedic. Some days Chris goes directly there to work eight hours. Job number three, five hours as a paramedic in a different town. He races off to help a truck worker who was unloading gravel. Vehicle roll over with injuries. Reporter: As he heads home to sleep, behind the closed doors of his house, Chris faces a different kind of stress and a lot of love. Hello! Daddy! Hi, buddy! How was your day? Let's go make macaroni. Reporter: His wife, Lauren, baby Ella, and toddler little Christopher. How many calls you had? How many calls? Two calls. Just two? Dad, you always save people who are hurt. I save people who are hurt. Did you see the gas bill? Reporter: They bought a house in a neighborhood where the public schools are good. A 30-year mortgage. They're also paying down big student loans. I'm going to get ready for work. I love you. Reporter: To save money, they tell us that they bought used furniture online. They only eat out once a year on their anniversary. They buy toothpaste and razors with coupons. And Chris shows us the one pair of shoes he uses for going out, like to church. They are ten years old. I can't tell you the last time my wife and I bought anything for ourselves. Reporter: And then, just when the Smiths thought they might be able to come in on budget, two surprises. His health care premiums were jacked up nearly 30% in the past two years. And a storm flooded their backyard, costing thousands. At the end of each month, how much do you have left? Really nothing. He's such a good guy and he works so hard and the job that he does do is so incredibly hard and so incredibly scary. Reporter: Chris looks longingly at the lives of the 20% of Americans who take up so much more of America's wealth. I want more time with my children, with my family. You're never going to get that back. Reporter: The people who can afford vacations and savings accounts, security for the future. They spend more in one day than we probably spend in a month. Their bonuses are more than we make in years. It's a totally different world that they live in. Reporter: And so many of you wrote us that it doesn't seem most Americans know about the reality of a middle class life. We went out on the street to ask some random questions. What percentage of Americans today are in the middle class? 85%. Reporter: The truth, just 50%. And what is the income for a family of five just making it through the middle class door? This is my answer. Reporter: That income actually starts at $54,000. So we head to Maryland where we meet an incredibly spunky woman named Tracey Coleman. She's shaving big bars of soap to make her own laundry detergent because it saves her $10 a month. Tracey's husband once had a union job in manufacturing, but it went away, so he spends long days installing air conditioners. She works as an aide at the local elementary school. She worries that people blame working families for their situation. Something's wrong with you. You're doing something wrong. We're working, it's not like we're not working. It's just not enough money to support you. Reporter: Her big splurge, she says, McDonald's, maybe once a month. I'm not gonna lie. I've said to myself, I should not have spent that $18 at McDonald's. I could have put it into gas tank. But I want my kids to be able to enjoy life. Reporter: She has two children. A daughter named Abby and a son named Colton who is just 7 years old, but already reads at a sixth-grade level. He and his best friend, Caleb, have questions about her budget. How much money do you get? What I'm gonna bring home is gonna be $470 about. What? What? But listen to this. Our house costs $800 a month. I've got to work two weeks at least just to pay off the mortgage. Gas and electric's another $200 a month, so that's another half a week. I have to pay for our car, that's $200. So now I have to buy food. Soup, shampoo. Soda. Toothpaste. So we're left with maybe $50 extra. Well, guess what? What if we want to go to McDonald's once? That's like zero dollars. Yeah, that's like zero dollars that we can save. So how are we supposed to save? By -- I don't know. Reporter: Tracey hears all those pundits on TV saying that people just need to get a college degree. A college education. It actually increases your earning potential by 20%. Reporter: So every day Tracey tries to power up her failing computer, to do homework for an online college course. Fighting against the exhaustion and the stress in her life. And if you doubt what it means for someone like Tracey to get a little break, a different job opens up at the elementary school. It's still entry level. A parent teacher coordinator, but with extra pay. I got this job. I got this job! Reporter: One moment to savor on her family's difficult climb into the American dream.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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