How It Happens: Average Families Getting Behind

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By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor

While it remains a continual struggle for us, my children and I have managed to attain what most Americans would constitute “average family” status.

We bought a house in a decent neighborhood last summer. According to their teachers, all three of them are doing fine in school. My 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son are beginning to divide their free time between fist fights and online gaming. On the surface, all is … average.

If something were to happen to us – like a sudden lottery win or the death of a distant, well-off relative – the newspapers would use that terminology to describe our lives before our sudden windfall. So would the people who know us. We are making it as the economy makes its way toward hopeful recovery, but we are by no means getting ahead. Neither are our friends.

The phrase “getting ahead” isn’t nearly as common as it was a decade ago, nor is the word “prosperity.” The notion of prosperity has been eliminated as a potential achievement in our nation – the one country in which it was once thought to be a realistic possibility. What’s more troublesome, though, is that “getting behind” is becoming a greater actuality for more American families, and it happens with surprising ease, even for families who are making an effort to prevent such a slip.

I can think of a few acquaintances whose struggles illustrate how easy it is for average families to become … less than average. What follows is a description merging a few stories of the families we know that shows how sudden an average American family can find itself fighting to stay together in more ways than financial.

My friend (call him Russ) worked as a designer at a greeting cards company making good money. His wife, Cassandra, worked as the PR rep for a small, not-for-profit organization. During their first few years of marriage, they essentially lived off of one salary and paid their debts – including student loans – with the other. When the economy took a hit in 2008, donations declined and Cassandra’s job at the nonprofit organization was one of the many hundreds of thousands across the country to be axed from payroll.

At first, they thought they could make it with her staying at home with their children. They saw it as a way to save on childcare. Before long, it was clear Russ’ salary couldn’t cut the arrangement, so Cassandra began searching for work. This was about a year after her layoff, and she’d waited too long. There was no work available in the public relations realm, even for someone with her experience.

The best extra money she could get was from freelance assignments for a magazine and some other small writing projects, but nothing substantive, nothing that would make up the difference in the monthly household bills or put them ahead. What made it all the more frustrating was the average house they lived in, the average cars, the average meals. They were not a couple living beyond their means. The averageness was intentional when they were first married, and now, it almost felt like a luxury.

To make ends meet, he took an extra job at a call center that was affiliated with a credit card company. Ironically, his work involved relentlessly calling individuals and families who were behind on their bills. He worked evenings three days a week. The money helped, but it was more time that Cassandra spent with the children and, after they were put to bed, time she spent alone.

The financial strain and the time apart began taking its toll on their marriage. Eventually, she found work and a woman in the neighborhood who could watch their children, which helped but didn’t completely solve their financial woes. He found a job, too, that was better paying and closer to home. Even with more money coming in, they are still only getting by – but getting by, together, happy to be struggling as opposed to planning lives without one another.

Their union was put to the test along with the plans they’d made as a family. They made it through a rough spot, united, and now the struggle becomes day to day. Some months they barely have enough to make the house payment – at risk of being overdrawn – but they somehow manage it as if there is someone watching over them.

Their marriage will be stronger in the long run. I worry sometimes for them, though. Another big expense – a major car repair or termites – could put them under. The same could be said for me and my kids. We’re like so many other families – similar to Russ and Cassandra. When the economy begins to grow, our families will feel it first.

For those families who aren’t as fortunate as we are, education will be a critical factor in changing their outcomes (and income). They need access – to education, to financial aid, to their choice of programs. That situation won’t change under the current presidential administration, even with a “growing economy.” The changes to Pell Grants and the GI Bill are taking money away from the people who need it most. The people they might characterize as “at the bottom.”

Averageness, you see, is a commodity today. And until it isn’t, the dream for American families is going to coast along, month to month, bill by bill.