STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's another way to measure the state of the economy. The median household income is down five percent from its peak in 1999. It's just under $50,000, meaning of American households makes less than $50,000.
Today, we begin a series of profiles of Americans living in the middle, right around that $50,000 mark.
NPR's Tovia Smith has been talking with a family in New Hampshire.
TOVIA SMITH: Sue Spencer says she's always known what she wanted to do when she grew up: She wanted to take care of people.
(Soundbite of knocking)
ANN: Come in.
Ms. SUE SPENCER (Case Manager): Hi, Ann.
Ms. SPENCER: How you been?
ANN: Not too good.
SMITH: Now, 25 years into a career in social services, Spencer is still passionate about helping the elderly.
ANN: The breathing is very bad.
Ms. SPENCER: Well, this air is horrible.
ANN: I know, but I have my air conditioned.
Ms. SPENCER: I know just the person that can answer this question, so I'll ask her.
I love what I do. I'm a case manager to the core. It makes me feel good. But, you know, I do regret that somewhere along the way somebody said here's how your job is valued, and the pay that went with my position.
SMITH: Spencer makes about $42,000 a year. She also works overnights with disabled adults for an extra $4,000, and with a few thousand in child support, it's doable - in a perfect month, she says. But most months are not perfect.
Ms. SPENCER: It's always juggling, you know. You know who you can pay late and who you absolutely can't.
SMITH: Something as small as school pictures or a broken washing machine can keep her up at night.
Ms. SPENCER: I will literally take out pen and paper and go: What's flexible in the budget? Food is flexible.
SMITH: Spencer is not one to whine, as she puts it - perhaps because she's known better and she's known worse. Back in the '90s, with a husband working as a carpenter, things were great, she says. But everything changed when he suddenly walked out and Spencer ended up on public assistance.
Ms. SPENCER: I went from, you know, helping my clients apply for Medicaid to being there as a parent and experiencing the woman on the other end of the glass - you know, not even looking up. Brutal, brutal.
SMITH: Her rock-bottom was one day when her two girls - Katie and Gaelyn, who were nine and four - saw their mom in tears.
Ms. SPENCER: We were sitting out by the lake, and Katie says to me: We need Indian names, mom. You'll be Standing Tall and I'll be Running Brave and Gaelyn will be Little One. Okay, mom? And I just - I came home that night, and I was just going: You know, I just need to be that person.
SMITH: Newly determined and newly promoted at work, Spencer managed to get off public assistance and even buy a house by working overtime and watching every penny. She wears prescription eyeglasses she found online for 8 bucks. She gave up her phone line at home and just uses her cell. And her daughters - who've been working since their first paper routes - are used to making do, like Gaelyn did last spring with a prom dress from a thrift store.
On good days, Spencer says, she sees it as character-building.
Ms. SPENCER: But it's good for them to see, you know. It doesn't just come to you. But, you know, I have my moments at three in the morning where I don't always look at it that way. I will be honest with you.
SMITH: Spencer says she especially sweats the big stuff, like sending two kids to college.
Ms. SPENCER: You really like this one?
Ms. GAELYN SPENCER: Yeah. My favorite.
Ms. SPENCER: Your favorite over UNH?
SMITH: In the kitchen after school, Spencer pours through a pile of brochures she and Gaelyn collected at a college fair.
Ms. SPENCER: Well, I know. I mean, the cheapest school is probably UNH, and then...
Ms. GAELYN SPENCER: Well, that's my second-favorite, which is good.
SMITH: Spencer nods silently. This is a tricky thing for her, encouraging Gaelyn to follow her dreams, even if it means she'll graduate with a huge load of debt hanging over her head.
Ms. SPENCER: You'd live in a smaller apartment than you would - and you'd make car payments, and, you know, you do what your mom's done, you know, all of her life. And you do what makes you happy, but you don't want your kid to struggle.
SMITH: The Spencer girls know better than most what it means to struggle, and they're both driven because of it. But they've also seen how even the best-laid plans can crumble, and that's taught them to let go a little, too.
Ms. GAELYN SPENCER: I feel like it'll come, and we'll figure it out. It's life. Like, you can't really plan it.
Ms. SPENCER: That's just how it is. You know, we do everything we can, and then the rest of this is out of our hands, just like it always is. And then we sort of hope and pray for the best.
SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News.
INSKEEP: We're in a country where just about everybody thinks they're middle class. If you're not sure you know what middle class means, you can test your knowledge at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.