Portraits of America's Recession

From families to towns to businesses, the economy forces everything to change.

March 06, 2009, 4:36 PM

March 6, 2009— -- As part of our series "The Kitchen Table," "World News" will spend considerable time in the coming months with a family in Seattle, a small businessman in Garland, Texas, and local officials in Brockton, Mass., to get a firsthand look at the different ways each is coping with the recession and preparing for the challenges ahead.

Lori Campbell, 48 and Rick Hirst, 42 have been married a little more than a year. But in at least one way, the honeymoon is long over. Both lost high-paying jobs with Microsoft. Campbell's contract ended in September, and Hirst was laid off in January. They share a two-bedroom, two-bath condo with Hirst's four children, who recently came to live with them in Seattle.

"We did everything right," Hirst said. "We kept our debt down. We didn't buy a house we couldn't afford. We live very frugally."

Moving from a dual income to no income, the family has entered recession mode, cutting back on everything. It can no longer afford to bring in a housekeeper once a month, so the kids help clean the home instead.

Campbell takes the family on trips to stock up on groceries at warehouse stores. The family of six can go through nearly a gallon of milk a day and can polish off an entire loaf of bread in a week, making shopping a challenge.

Campbell also hunts for bargains at thrift shops and buys clothes by the pound at Goodwill. "The kids are growing like weeds," she said.

Both Campbell's and Hirst's full-time jobs have now become looking for one.

With 20 years of work experience, a master's degree and a resume spanning four pages, she's inquired about nearly 100 jobs since September.

"Some are resumes, some are online applications, some just meetings with recruiters," she said.

Despite her efforts, nothing has happened. All they can do is wait and keep hunting.

The Business: Master Hatters of Texas

In Garland, Texas, Jerry Cook's family has been making hats for 40 years. Selling cowboy hats in the Lone Star State has always been a money-maker. But skyrocketing costs for raw materials and the bankruptcy of his biggest retailer have forced Cook's hand.

"All of a sudden I can't afford these people," said Cook, owner of Master Hatters. "So I have to cut my workvforce better than a third. A lot of these people had been with me 17, 18 years."

Twelve workers were let go. And, every day, others come looking for work.

"We lost so many people, half the factory," said Lisa Clark, Master Hatters' office manager. "We have the owner who has stepped into a position, putting hats on racks, filling orders, doing the shipping."

Every month, the struggle to meet payroll and health insurance mounts. Cook is living hat-to-hat.

As they enter straw hat season, more orders are rolling in, 660 hats in one day alone. While the volume of hats offers hope, the company can't survive only on straw hats, which net less than fur, felt or wool. Cook needs any and all orders, but customers must also pay promptly to keep them afloat. And that has been a problem of late.

Brockton is a small city with big problems. Once the shoe capital of America, the last of Brockton's shoe factories closes its doors next month.

And the city itself is about to drastically cut its work force. By 2010, Brockton Mayor James Harrington's budget cuts 300 city jobs.

"There may be as [many] as 300 people on the city side, and as many as 180 public safety people, police and fire and that is in addition to the ones that we have already not filled, back filled with jobs," Harrington said.

Seven cadets graduate from the police academy next week, and there are no badges waiting for them. And the already-thin fire department could get cut in half, leaving only 91 firefighters to patrol the entire city.

"My husband and I are both firefighters," said Heather Dutin, an eight-year veteran of the Brockton Fire Department. "We both got hired together, so if we get laid off, if they lay off our entire class, we get laid off together. And you know it is tough when you have a mortgage. We have three kids, so what are we going to do?"

Homeless Student Can Warm Up at School

Brockton's public schools are scrambling to figure out how to cut $20 million from the budget without sacrificing learning for students like Rondell Best, an 18-year-old homeless senior at Brockton High who finds joy at school.

"It is an escape," he said. "I have some place where I feel comfortable and it is warm."

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