Image: Troy Anthony Powell
Stephen Geffre  /  for msnbc.com
Troy Anthony Powell sits in his barber shop in Richfield, Minn. Powell is one of many Americans who have seen their take-home pay drop amid the weak economy.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/28/2008 12:00:38 PM ET 2008-10-28T16:00:38

Troy Anthony Powell has been running Tap’s Barber Shop for nine years and has seen business get better every year — until this year.

With the economy in a slump, Powell said loyal customers who used to come in for a haircut every week or even more often are now coming in every two or three weeks instead. Whereas some customers used to tip $5 or $10 on a $15 or $25 service, now that’s down to $3 or even just a promise that “I’ll get you next time.”

And when they do sit down in the barber’s chair, the conversation often turns to the economic pinch that everyone seems to be feeling these days.

“Within the last two months I’ve really seen a decline in business because I think a lot of people out there, they’re struggling, they’re having economic problems,” he said.

That’s translating into financial doldrums for Powell, 42, as well. This year, Powell expects to make about half as much money as he did last year in his suburban Minneapolis shop.

As the effects of the nation’s financial crisis ripple across the country, many Americans are left holding jobs but taking home less money than they have been accustomed to earning. Hundreds of msnbc.com readers who responded to a Gut Check America call said they have seen their hours or wages cut, or that their tips and commissions have fallen sharply, because of the weak economy.

The responses reflect a national trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people who are working part-time but would like full-time work has risen by 1.6 million, to 6.1 million, over the past year. That figure increased by 337,000 people in September alone, the Labor Department said.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said the sharp rise in the ranks of the underemployed has come as a big surprise and will likely end up being yet another blow for working families and the economy as a whole. That’s because it translates into less money to buy both necessities and discretionary items. That means less consumer spending, a key driver of the U.S. economy.

For Powell the drop in income means that he and his wife, a paralegal, are shopping and going out less, and probably will not be taking any trips this year. Powell has been able to keep his three other barbers on staff at the Richfield, Minn., shop, but he had to scrap a plan to provide them with health insurance.

Still, Powell said he has savings to fall back on, and he feels he has built up his business enough to weather the storm.

“I’m cutting back, but I do still feel like I’ll be all right,” he said.

For others who were already living paycheck to paycheck, the tightening market has had much harsher consequences.

Ron Siekierk, 22, quit a full-time job at a fast-food restaurant to move from his hometown of Traverse City, Mich., to California, but his plans there quickly fell through. After a stint in Florida, where he said the job market also was bleak, Siekierk found himself back in Michigan, unable to get his old job back or find another equivalent one. Everywhere he went, he said, he heard the same story — they weren’t hiring.

Siekierk finally landed a part-time job at another restaurant, making $7.40 an hour, but he said he has been unable to find full-time work. That has left his budget extremely tight.

“I don’t make enough to actually afford basic necessities,” Siekierk said.

For now, Siekierk is staying with his girlfriend, who lives about five miles outside of town, and walking to work, he said. Hoping to improve his job prospects for the future, he has enrolled in a two-year computer information technology program at Northwestern Michigan College and applied for student loans to help cover costs.

When he finishes the program, he hopes to be able to land a job that makes at least $12 an hour. While he would rather pursue a career as a cook, he has decided that getting technical training is the more practical choice.

“It’s not what I want to do, but there’s more money and it’s more readily available,” he said.

Depleted retirement savings
While Siekierk is just starting out on his career path, Milton Comeaux finds himself at what he hoped to be the tail end of it. Now 58, the car salesman had set his sights on retiring at 62, using a small 401(k) account to pad his Social Security payments.

“I’ve got grandkids; I’d love to spend some time with them,” he said.

But the stock market drop has depleted his retirement savings, and now business at the car dealership where he works, in New Iberia, La., is down sharply. Comeaux, who has worked there for the last 12 years, said he usually sells five or six cars a month, but this month, he didn’t make his first sale until Oct. 21.

Like a number of car salesmen who responded to our call for stories, Comeaux is being hit by a triple whammy of the weak economy, the recent spike in gas prices and, mostly, a tightening credit market. Customer traffic is down, and of the people who do come into the dealership, as many as half don’t qualify for a loan under new, stricter requirements, Comeaux said.

Comeaux says he lives frugally, and he’s also picked up a little extra work on the side to make ends meet, but he still has to dip into savings every month. He knows that can’t go on forever.

“At this rate I can probably go maybe another six months or so, and then I don’t know,” he said.

Bankruptcy fears
Paul Buzash also is facing the possibility that the business he has spent much of his life building will come crumbling down because of the tough credit market.

Buzash works as an environmental consultant in Glenville, N.Y., often helping companies interested in alternative energy go through the compliance process. While there has been plenty of buzz lately about alternative energy, he says most of those projects take years to complete, meaning companies can invest for as long as six years before they start generating cash.

With the credit markets tight, Buzash says many of his clients are having trouble getting the cash they need to pay him during the build-out process, in turn forcing him to leave bills unpaid. Some projects have been put on hold.

“I’m having a hard time just keeping past due 30 days, and I don’t see a change on the horizon,” he said.

For now, Buzash is relying on some savings, but he figures he can do that for only about six months. If things continue to go downhill, Buzash fears he will forced into bankruptcy, a devastating turn that could mean he would lose the house he shares with his wife and three kids, ages 17, 14 and 8. With no retirement savings, the house also is his nest egg.

“This is the worst I’ve seen it, there’s no question,” he said. “I’m trying to be optimistic and keep my head up and say, ‘Hey, it’s going to change, it’s going to get better.’ But I’m 53 years old, (and) I just don’t remember anything like this.”

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