Three weeks of financial turmoil have thrown America's economic future into doubt. But for many families, the trouble started long before the recent banking crisis. For a young Texas family, the problems started with high gasoline prices and picked up from there.
On a recent afternoon at Stephen and Deborah Ironside's home in Dallas, the couple's children — Claudia, 7, Annabelle, 6, and Sterling, 4 — jumped around their father's legs as he tried to relax on the couch.
Deborah, 36, had just returned from a 3-mile run. The exercise is a stress reliever. During the past year, the economy has served up two significant and, to an extent, traumatic changes in the family's life.
For one, Deborah had to go back to work full-time seven months ago, instead of staying home with their three young children. She says it has been hard on the children, hard on her husband and, most of all, hard on her. The children miss her, and she feels guilty and sad, she says — "Because I was not home with my children anymore. I couldn't pick my kids up from school — somebody else had to pick my kids up from school.
"I had to put my youngest son in a school program full-time — which is a very good school, but still. He was 3, and I wasn't — emotionally, I wasn't as ready as I thought I was, so that was hard."
Adjusting To A Cramped Cash-Flow
The other difficult transition involved Stephen. A master carpenter who immigrated from Scotland 15 years ago, he had married a Texas girl and become a permanent resident. He settled down and started a successful millwork business.
Ironside employed as many as 25 people. But when the housing bubble burst last year, the booming Texas economy began to falter.
In the Dallas area, it wasn't devastating by any means — but Ironside began noticing that the restaurants, bars, movie theaters and hotels that hired him to do their finishing work were taking longer and longer to settle their accounts.
"It was getting harder and harder for companies to part with the checks to pay you," Stephen said. "It was a lot more nickel-and-diming. They would start to cut back, and change orders, and fight you tooth and nail for every cent."
Although there was still plenty of work, Ironside found himself lying awake at night. He worried about making payroll. And the cash-flow uncertainties meant that his own bills weren't always getting paid on time.
"Even before the banks folded this week, or last week, our clients were pulling back," he said.
"And everybody was waiting for the economy to stabilize, and see exactly what was going to happen. So there's a lot of fear out there, especially for small businesses that are not going to get the funding and finances that's required."
This summer, Ironside made a hard decision. He sent his workers on their way and took an offer to be a project manager for a commercial construction company. He is now an employee, not an employer.
The Ironsides say they aren't suffering any ill effects from the collapse on Wall Street — not yet, anyway. But Deborah says their lifestyle began to change months ago, when the price of fuel, groceries and other commodities shot up. That was the catalyst, she said — not Lehman Brothers' sorry fate.
"We think twice about where we're going to go, why we're going to go," she said.
She and her sister, who lives across town, used to get their children together a couple of times a week.
Now, she says, "Playdates don't happen as much."
Feeling Bipartisan Anger
The Ironsides say they don't feel threatened financially by what's happening in New York and Washington — but they are angry about it. Deborah is a Republican, but she supported the government's effort to rescue the banks and theoretically avert economic catastrophe.
"It's a plan," she said. "I mean, what's the alternative?"
Stephen is a Democrat. He also supported the Wall Street bailout, but his analysis of who's to blame for the financial debacle is more class-centered.
"The greedy bankers, the subprime mortgage lenders, Wall Street — all of them," he said.
The Ironsides admit to having occasional thoughts — remembrances, really — of the stories their grandparents told them about what life was like during the Great Depression. But in the fall of 2008, that seems so long ago.
This Dallas family believes that the "sharp pencil boys" running the Treasury and the Fed have learned their history lessons well enough, and that the government knows how to keep something like that from happening again.
At least, the Ironsides hope so.