America's Middle Class: On the Edge

Economic troubles are pushing some middle-class families to the edge of poverty.

ByABC News
March 16, 2010, 2:54 PM

March 16, 2010— -- Being "middle class" in America isn't just about income. It's about the confidence that you can afford a home, a successful education for your kids, a vacation and the other trappings of the American dream. For many middle-class Americans hit by what many are calling the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, that dream is slipping away.

For one couple in California, the edge of the middle class is creeping closer. "We might be homeless in five months," they say. "It's the subject of nightmares."

They live in a picturesque California suburb and asked ABC News to conceal their identities, because even their closest neighbors don't know that they are on the verge of losing it all. The husband was laid off six weeks ago, and as current unemployment numbers suggest, he is not likely to find a new job right away.

"You work really hard, you play by the rules, and you pay your taxes, give to charity, take care of your family and it just falls apart," the husband told ABC News. "You ask yourself: how did this happen?"

His wife still holds her job, but $11 an hour wages simply do not effectively feed a family of four. What is worse is that before the crisis hit, they had used their savings to pay down their credit card debt – leaving them with little cushion during their time of crisis.

"You feel like you're in a tailspin going down and down, but you keep your head above water so that the kids feel safe and secure," she says. "You don't want them to think you might be living out of a car."

She was once a volunteer at a food pantry, but she recently took ABC News along for her first visit to one – this time for help.

"The shame, the shame just of being in this position. You never would imagine being here. Nobody gets it until you go through it."

They are not the only ones. Nationwide, there has been a 48 percent increase in those who need food assistance. Increasingly, they are middle-class families like this one.

Since ABC News started its report on America's middle class, we're heard from many viewers who reached us via Skype, going through the same situation.

Al Fuentes told us his hours have been cut so much, he had to pull his son out of college. Angie Lynch told us she owes more on her house than it is worth and now the sales at her small business have slowed.

"I work so hard on it. I really saw a huge turn in a couple months and haven't been able to recover," she told ABC News.

Six out of of 10 of you say you are worried about your family's financial situation. Rachel, a single mother of two teenage boys, is among them.

After she lost her dream job, she picked up two jobs just to be able to pay the bills. "I don't get home until 10 at night," she told us. "Sometimes, when the boys are already in bed, I've been known to wake them up just to talk to them."

She begged the banks to refinance her mortgage to save her $100 a month, but they refused. They said she had too many jobs.

"I was very upset," she said. "My first comment was would you rather me sit at home and collect unemployment?"

Still, Rachel is determined to try and make it work -- fighting through her finances and wrestling with heartbreaking decisions.

"It's a struggle every day to decide: do I go to work to give the kids lunch money, or do I go to the baseball game to watch them play?"