Darryl and Kristina Pendergrass and their sons, William, 3, and Ian, 20 months. The family gets by on Daryl's $43,000-a-year salary as a biologist with the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Darryl and Kristina Pendergrass and their sons, William, 3, and Ian, 20 months. The family gets by on Daryl's $43,000-a-year salary as a biologist with the Alabama Department of Public Health. Debbie Elliott/NPR
Part of a series, Living In The Middle
Public-sector jobs were once considered a path to a comfortable future — a steady salary, good benefits and the promise of a pension. But that's not so certain in the present economic climate.
When Darryl Pendergrass arrives home after his 28-mile commute from Montgomery, Ala., it's time to play. He scoops up 20-month-old Ian from the bed, where his wife, Kristina, has just changed the toddler's diaper. Three-year-old William wakes up from his nap, and the family heads to the screened-in front porch to enjoy the early autumn evening.
The Pendergrass family lives in an older home in Tallassee, a town of about 5,000 in east Alabama. Darryl, 39, is a biologist with the state health department. Kristina, 32, is a researcher who is now a stay-at-home mom.
They live on Darryl's $43,000-a-year salary, which is right about the median income for Alabama.
Because of state budget shortfalls, he hasn't had a raise in five years.
"We've been frozen, but each year my insurance co-pays and my insurance rates have [gone] ... up, and our coverage ... went down," he says. "So I've been actually losing; my salary has been decreasing."
Kristina, who is in charge of the checkbook, says it has meant giving up some of the niceties they once enjoyed.
"We made it work — a lot of beans-and-rice kind of dinners," she says. "We don't go on vacation, and we got rid of cable. No eating out. No traveling. No buying $900 chest-of-drawers."
Entertainment consists of reading books and playing make-believe with the boys.
Darryl Pendergrass says the boys have simplified their lives.
Darryl, here with sons William and Ian, says his family can't seem to get a step ahead. He hasn't had a raise in 5 years and says his net income has declined because of higher health insurance costs.
Darryl, here with sons William and Ian, says his family can't seem to get a step ahead. He hasn't had a raise in 5 years and says his net income has declined because of higher health insurance costs. Debbie Elliott/NPR
"We've had to ask ourselves what's really important," he says. "And that's our family — our kids and each other."
But they acknowledge that it's easy to lose perspective when money is tight.
Kristina says that last month, their bank balance touched a low.
"That makes me stressed, and he gets the brunt of me dealing with my stress," she says. Her husband says it can be frustrating.
"She'll say we don't have any money, to not buy things, and that will go for a couple of months, and then I'll come home and then she's bought a whole bunch of plants or something like that," he says. "And I was like, 'I thought we didn't have any money.' "
But the couple says they are doing better than many of the people in this town, which has seen its textile industry disappear. At least they don't have to worry about going hungry, they say.
They stretch the food budget by growing a few vegetables in the yard and buying in bulk when they can. They bought half of a pig from a local farmer and stored it in the deep freeze.
Both of their cars are paid off. And thanks to a family loan, they don't have a mortgage on the house. Darryl still owes about $28,000 in student loans.
The struggle is saving for retirement and the boys' college.
"You feel like you should have some money to save, and you think you have maybe pinched pennies, and then at the end of the month you realize there's nothing to put into savings anyway," Kristina says. "It just all disappears somewhere."
Unexpected household expenses are always cropping up. This week, the heating element in the stove went out. That cost $40.
They have $300 in their savings account, and around $7,800 in Darryl's retirement account. He says he is not counting on his Alabama state pension because the program is already in the hole.
"What it meant to be middle class before — as far as the 2.5 kids, and the home in the suburbs and the car and everything — it's not the same," he says. "It seems to me we have to be running faster and faster just to maintain where we're at.
"And we're not maintaining. We're slowly going down."
He says if the economic recovery depends on middle-income families like his increasing consumption, it will be a long time before things turn around.