STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
This week in our series Living in the Middle we're reporting on families who earn roughly the median income in the United States, which is about $50,000 a year.
Jobs in the public sector were once considered a path to a comfortable future -there was a steady salary, plus good benefits and the promise of a pension.�In today's economic climate, that's no longer so certain.
Today, NPR's Debbie Elliott visits with a family of four trying to make ends meet on a state salary in Alabama.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: When Daryl Pendergrass arrives home after his 28-mile commute from Montgomery, it's time to play.
Unidentified Female: Daddy...
ELLIOTT: He scoops up 20-month-old Ian from the bed where his wife Kristina has just changed the toddler's diaper.
(Soundbite of baby)
ELLIOTT: Three-year-old William awakes from his nap and the family heads to the screened-in front porch to enjoy the early autumn evening.
Mr. DARYL PENDERGRASS: You ready for takeoff, Ian?
ELLIOTT: The porch swing becomes the cockpit of an airplane.
Mr. PENDERGRASS: Up, up, up, up, up in the sky.
ELLIOTT: The Pendergrass family lives in an older home in Tallassee - a town of about 5,000 in east Alabama. Darryl, who is 39, is a biologist with the state health department. Kristina Pendergrass is a 32-year-old researcher turned stay-at-home mom.
ELLIOTT: They live on his $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.
Mr. PENDERGRASS: We've been frozen, but each year my insurance co-pays and my insurance rates have went up. And our coverage just went down. So I've been actually losing - my salary has been decreasing.
ELLIOTT: Kristina, who's in charge of the checkbook, says it's meant giving up some of the niceties they once enjoyed.
Ms. KRISTINA PENDERGRASS: But we made it work and a lot of beans and rice kind of dinners. And we don't go on vacation and we got rid of cable.
ELLIOTT: Entertainment is reading books, and playing make-believe with the boys. Darryl Pendergrass says they've simplified their life.
Mr. PENDERGRASS: We've had to ask ourselves what's really important. And that's, you know, it's our family (unintelligible) each other.
ELLIOTT: But they admit it's easy to lose perspective when money is tight.
Ms. PENDERGRASS: Like last month, for example, we're getting down to a low amount of money in our bank account, or at least what I call low, so that makes me stressed and then he gets - I mean he gets the brunt of me dealing with my stress.
Mr. PENDERGRASS: Well, and also, she will, like she'll say, you know, 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENDERGRASS: And then I was like, I thought we didn't have any money.
ELLIOTT: But the couple says they are doing better than many of the people in this town that 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 - like half a pig from a local farmer they have in the deep freeze handed down from parents. 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.
Ms. PENDERGRASS: You feel like you should be able to have some money to save and you think you have maybe pinched pennies, and then at the end of the month you realize, well, there's just nothing to put into savings anyway. It just kind of all disappears somewhere.
ELLIOTT: Unexpected household expenses are always cropping up. Just this week, the heating element in the stove went out. That was $40. In their savings account they have $300. In Daryl's retirement account, 7,800. He says he's not counting on his Alabama state pension, because the program is already in the hole.
Mr. PENDERGRASS: What it meant to be middle class before, as far as, you know, the 2.5 kids and the home in the suburbs and the car and everything, it's not, it's not the same. Because it seems to me that we have to be, you know, running faster and faster just to maintain where we're at. And we're not maintaining. We're slowly going down.
ELLIOTT: Darryl Pendergrass says if the economic recovery depends on middle income families like his increasing consumption, it will be a long time before things turn around.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can explore more profiles of middle class Americans featured in our series, Living In The Middle, on our website, npr.org.
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