By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
updated 10/15/2007 6:10:49 AM ET 2007-10-15T10:10:49

In September, Gut Check America readers voted the middle-class economic squeeze as the most-pressing issue facing America. This month, we profile three families who wrote in to share their stories.

If you drove north from Birmingham a couple of Saturdays ago on a syrup-sticky morning and stopped at a certain Waffle House along the way, you could have overheard all the talk you wanted about the Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. But while you stirred your grits amid a sea of red, blue and orange jerseys, you also might have heard this conversation at the cash register:

“Seven dollars?” a 30ish male customer sputters in disbelief as the waitress rings up his breakfast. “I was thinking five.”

“I know, Sugar,” the waitress says, frowning in sympathy. “It’s everything. Two eighty-five for the waffle, two thirty for the bacon, a dollar thirty for the coffee. … You buy a gallon of milk lately?”

Sitting in his modest but comfortable mobile home in the pastoral hills of Hayden later that morning, Ken Hamaker put his thoughts about what he considers the declining fortunes of America’s middle class into similarly plain language.

“We live in a society today where you can work a full-time job and not put food on your table,” says Hamaker, leaning forward in his chair. “That’s sick!”

Hamaker, a native and nearly lifelong resident of Alabama who could pass for a decade younger than his 38 years, has bought milk lately, watching it go from $2.69 a gallon a few years ago to $4 now. The 8-ounce blocks of cheese he buys have shot from $1.69 a year ago to $2.49.

“I went to the grocery store yesterday and spent $200,” says Hamaker, who earns what most folks would consider a good living as a computer systems manager for a retail chain. “I got nothing.” Increases in the price of food are mirrored in his bills for insurance, utilities, gas and health care, but not in his wages, he says.

Hamaker, who has little respect for either major political party, blames an insatiably greedy corporate power structure for his declining purchasing power. And he accuses neo-conservatives of using divisive political issues like abortion and gay marriage to distract average voters from the raids on their pocketbooks.

“If you have a store with a cash register and I want to get into it, how do I do it? I confuse you,” he says.

A political awakening
Meanwhile, he says, the rich and powerful benefit from tax cuts for top wage earners, obscene corporate profits and executive salaries, lax immigration policies that benefit big business, campaign contributions that are really political payoffs and weak regulations for big oil, pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors and the insurance industry. The result, he believes, is an ever-declining quality of life for the middle class.

Hamaker is currently the sole wage-earner for a family that includes his new wife, Inna, 34, and stepdaughter, Svetlana, 16, recent immigrants from the Ukraine. Hamaker’s son from a previous marriage, Chase, 8, spends weekends and other days with the family; Hamaker pays $450 a month in child support to the boy’s mother.

He describes his politics as middle of the road and straddles a statistical median as well. The family’s annual income of $54,300 falls between the median figures of about $50,000 for Alabama and $59,000 for the nation as a whole.

Until a few years ago, Hamaker says he had no complaints about money and paid scant attention to politics. He had recovered financially from his divorce and was looking forward. He had a small mortgage and student loan and very little other debt. Then, with the cost of living creeping upward, he met Inna on the Internet. They fell in love and were married last year.

Elissa Eubanks for
Hamaker's financial straits have fired an interest in politics, which he pursues in part in online forums.
The cost of moving Inna and Svetlana to the United States and dealing with their immigration issues was considerable. Now, Inna, who has a master’s degree in accounting and wants to get a second advanced degree in health-care management, is taking English classes, another major expense.

Given their rural household, it makes financial sense for Inna to stay on campus in Gadsden, Ala., about 50 miles away, during her school week. The family has just one car; buying another, and paying for insurance and gas for a daily round trip, would cost too much. As it is, Ken commutes 90 miles a day from Hayden, not much more than a wide spot in the road with a Piggly Wiggly and a Family Dollar, to and from his job.

“When I moved out here (nine years ago), gas prices were 82 cents a gallon,” Hamaker says.  “When George Bush took office, I believe it was still $1.29 a gallon. Of course, we all know where we’re at now.”

A new portfolio of debt
To finance the new and rising expenses, Hamaker has used credit cards and a loan against his modest 401(k) balance, debts that now add up to more than $14,000.

He got rid of his cell phones, cashed out a life insurance policy and halted new contributions to his 401(k). He says “no” when his son wants to join a sports team or buy a new video game. Although he buys health insurance for himself and Chase through his employer, he cannot afford the $300-plus more a month that it would cost to add Inna and Svetlana.

“We’re floating off funds and actually running negative,” he says. “We just don’t have any luxuries.” Asked about college savings, Hamaker laughs and then confides that he’s not even able to buy the $120 a month worth of blood- pressure medication he’s supposed to be taking.

But he knows that other middle-class families have it worse. “I appreciate the fact that we have air conditioning and food on the table,” he says. “I guess a lot of people don’t have that.”

Hamaker says his concerns for his family pale in comparison to the darker fears he harbors about what will happen if the middle class disappears and the United States becomes starkly divided between the poor and rich.

“If we don’t stand up and do something, we’ll have a democracy like Mexico or the Ukraine,” two countries that Hamaker has visited and “where people are either filthy rich or very, very poor.”

He believes that his own political awakening is being repeated in front of computer screens and in living rooms across the nation.  “I think Americans ought to come together and take both parties down a notch and put in another party that listens to them,” he says.

Hamaker is hopeful that with his wife re-entering the workforce, his family’s fortunes will improve. He expects that they’ll eventually be able to move from the mobile home into a house and enjoy some of life’s other pleasures.

“I’m not negative,” he says. “I actually see myself as more of a realist.

“I just want to see a country that we can all believe in and that works for all of us -– from the least to the most.”

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