Erik Jacobs for NPR
Sue Spencer, 50, stands with her daughter Gaelyn Spencer, 17, in front of their home in Marlborough, N.H.
Sue Spencer, 50, stands with her daughter Gaelyn Spencer, 17, in front of their home in Marlborough, N.H. Erik Jacobs for NPR
First in the series, Living In The Middle
New federal numbers show the middle class struggling a little more these days.
The median income in the U.S. is down about 5 percent to $49,777, according to the Census Bureau. Sue Spencer, a case manager for the elderly, makes nearly that amount in New Hampshire.
"I love what I do," says the 50-year-old mother of two in Marlborough, N.H. "I am a case manager to the core. It makes me feel good. But I do regret that somewhere along the way, someone said, 'Here is how your job is valued.' [This is] the pay that went with my position."
Spencer makes $42,000 a year. She also works overnights with disabled adults for an extra $4,000 a year. And with the few thousand dollars in child support she manages to collect from her ex-husband, "It's doable in a perfect month," she says. But most months are not perfect.
"It's always juggling," she says. "You know who you can pay late, and who you absolutely can't."
Something as small as school pictures or a broken washing machine can keep her up at night.
"You worry and you wake up and ... I will literally take out pen and paper and go, 'What's flexible in the budget? Food is flexible. Food is one of the only things that is flexible.' "
Still, Spencer is one of the most optimistic people you'll meet; she's not one to "whine," as she puts it. That may be because, while she's middle income now, she has been much better off and much worse off as well.
Back in the 1990s, with a husband working as a carpenter, her girls were in Montessori schools and things were great, she says. But everything changed when her husband suddenly walked out, and Spencer ended up on public assistance.
"I went from helping my clients apply to Medicaid to being there as a parent, applying for my kids and experiencing the woman on the other side of the glass not even looking up going, 'Take a seat. We'll be with you.' [It was] brutal," she says.
Her rock bottom came one day when her two girls — Katie and Gaelyn, who were 9 and 4 years old — saw their mom in tears.
"We were sitting out by the lake, and Katie says to me, 'We need Indian names, Mom. You be Standing Tall. And I'll be Running Brave. And Gaelyn will be Little One,' OK, Mom?' " Spencer recalls. "And I just, I came home that night and I was just going, 'You know, I need to be that person that they need me to be.' "
Newly determined and newly promoted at work, Spencer managed to get off public assistance in less than two years and even bought a house, by working overtime and watching every penny.
She wears prescription eyeglasses that she found online for $8. She gave up her phone line at home and now just uses her cell. And instead of calling contractors or repair men, she turns to a group of women who take turns at each other's houses, doing everything from sheet-rocking and painting to unclogging toilets.
Meantime, her daughters have been working since their first paper routes at 9 years old and are used to making do. They saved for two years for a family vacation, counting dollars on a chart in the kitchen. And last spring, Gaelyn bought her prom dress from the dollar rack at a local thrift store.
On good days, Spencer says, she sees it as character building.
"It's made them the great kids that they are," Spencer says. "It's good for them to see it doesn't just come to you. But I have my moments at 3 in the morning where I don't always look at it that way. I'll be honest with you. I can't sit here and tell you there's not guilt about that. You know, I don't want them to miss out."
Spencer says these days she frets most about college. She and Gaelyn, a high school senior, went to their first college fair last week and came home with a bundle of brochures — and a boatload of worry.
"They're all expensive," Gaelyn says with a sigh as she thumbs through glossy pamphlets at the kitchen table. Her top choice right now is a school that costs about $30,000 a year.
Spencer nods, silently; this is a tricky thing for her. When her oldest daughter, Katie, decided she had her heart set on a college that cost $40,000 a year, Spencer says, her first impulse was to tell her to forget it.
"I was going to bed at night in a sheer panic, going 'How?!' I just wanted to tell her, 'You can't go to this school.' "
But Spencer bit her tongue, and Katie, a science whiz, ended up with a scholarship for more than half her tuition and student loans for most of the rest.
So now, Spencer says, she's trying to encourage Gaelyn to also follow her dreams, even if it means graduating with a lot of debt hanging over her head.
"I tell her, 'You'll figure it out. You'd live in a smaller apartment. You'd make car payments and do what your mom's done all of her life,' " Spencer says. But it's a hard thing to watch. She wants her girls to do what makes them happy, she says. But with her voice shaking, she adds softly, "but you don't want your kids to struggle."
Erik Jacobs for NPR
Gaelyn talks with her mom after arriving home from school.
Gaelyn talks with her mom after arriving home from school. Erik Jacobs for NPR
'We'll Figure It Out'
The Spencer girls know better than most about what struggling really means, and they are both driven because of it. Katie already makes more than her mom, working in a new job as a chemist just outside Boston. Gaelyn goes back and forth between pursuing her dream of working as a photographer and a more practical career in something like environmental science. "I don't know what I want to be," she shrugs. "I want to do what I love. I just hope what I fall in love with doesn't pay bad."
Indeed, life has also taught Gaelyn to let go a little, as she puts it. She's seen how even the best laid plans can crumble — not only when her dad disappeared, but also, last spring, when her step-brother died from injuries suffered in a car crash.
Since then, Gaelyn says, she doesn't get as stressed out anymore about things like how to pay for college.
"I feel like it'll come. And we'll figure it out, she says. "It's life, and, like, you can't really plan it. It'll just happen."
Spencer nods. "That's just how it is," she says. "We hustle to it, we step up to the plate, we do everything we can, and the rest of it is out of our hands — just like it always is — and then we just sort of hope and pray for the best."
Spencer says the point is driven home to her every day she goes to work with her elderly clients. Seeing folks trying to live on $500 a month from Social Security makes her more appreciative of what she has. But it also makes her more worried.
With basically nothing in the bank for her own retirement, Spencer says, "I see my future every day."