Video: Tough times change family dynamics

By Allison Linn Senior writer
updated 3/10/2009 8:27:16 AM ET 2009-03-10T12:27:16

Eleanora and Francis Scully didn’t live a lavish life, but it was a life they loved.

The Scullys shared the same apartment in the New York borough of Brooklyn for 32 years, raising two sons before settling into a comfortable existence on their own again.

In the evenings after work, they would sometimes meet in front of the building and head out for a slice of pizza or a cup of coffee. On the weekends, they might go hiking in Pennsylvania or spend the day at the beach. Every once in a while, they went to Illinois or Florida to visit their grown sons.

“Life was just — you couldn’t ask for more,” remembered Eleanora Scully, 53.

But now that life has unraveled due to job losses that eventually left the Scullys unable to pay their bills and stay in the apartment they rented for decades.

The lengthy recession is delivering a double blow to some American families, leaving both spouses without a job at the same time. The dual loss of income — and the difficult prospect of finding two new jobs — has some facing deep financial fears, including losing their homes and taking on expensive health care costs without the safety net of an employer’s insurance plan. It also is threatening the stability of some families, who are looking at a future very unlike the one they planned for.

“There are economic concerns, there are psychological concerns, there are concerns about their children,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group.

The government does not have current data on how many families are facing dual unemployment, but it certainly is a growing problem because of rapidly rising number of unemployed workers. The economy has shed more than 4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, pushing up the unemployment rate to 8.1 percent, as the nation grapples with deep problems in the banking and housing industries, among other woes.

“This is just a perfect storm, on so many levels, for American families,” said Heather Boushey, senior economist with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The job losses also are creating a ripple effect across extended families, as family members step in to help unemployed relatives in some cases, or can no longer count on financial help from them in others.

A gradual unraveling
Things started to unravel for the Scullys in August 2007 after Eleanora lost a job as a medical assistant that she had held for 10 years, and had trouble finding another job. Then in June  2008, her husband, 55, was injured and unable to return to his work as a copier technician.

Eleanora, meanwhile, had found work as a telemarketer but wasn’t able to produce enough sales. She found another job in a medical office last year but was let go less than three months later.

Both jobless, they relied on worker’s compensation and then started tapping their savings. Soon they had fallen behind on their rent and other bills and were going to a food bank for meals. Finally, last fall, they gave in to their son’s pleas and agreed to move in with him, his wife and their two young children in the small town of Hamilton, Ill.

Eleanora now has a job delivering newspapers. It doesn’t pay much, but she says it’s enough that she can make their car and cell phone payments and occasionally help out with bread, milk or treats for the grandkids.

Recently, Eleanora spent some time volunteering at a soup kitchen. After watching several families come in for food, some with children and grandchildren, she said she was struck by what she did have.

“I bowed my head and I said, ‘God almighty, thank you that our son opened (his) home to us, and he sees that we eat,’ ” she said.

Still, the couple is looking forward to getting their own life back.

“We just want to go home. We just want to go back to New York,” she said.

‘I’m back at Square One’
Greg Nagrant can’t rely on his kids to help out, because he’s already helping them. The Troutdale, Ore., resident had already taken in two of his three grown sons, who are between jobs doing pipeline work, when he found out in late January that he was losing his sales job in the wireless industry.

He and his wife, who also are taking care of a 1-year-old foster child, received another piece of bad news when she learned that a job she was supposed to start in mid-February — and that would have provided health care benefits for the couple —  had been rescinded because of the economy.

At 50, Nagrant said, he’s done everything from working as a bill collector for a balloon-o-gram company to owning his own furniture store, always figuring the next job was a step up. But now, he said, “I’m back at Square One.”

Nagrant has had some job interviews, but he said many employers are skittish about hiring because of the economy. His wife, meanwhile, is planning to sign on with a temporary agency.

The couple figures they can live on unemployment and savings for two to three months, or about six months if they stop making payments on the house they’ve owned for nearly 12 years.

It’s a stark change from eight years ago, when Nagrant thought he might even retire early.

“It’s really kind of scary to be in this situation,” he said.

‘It’s my goal to be employed’
By this point in his life, Tony Tucker would have liked to be shopping for a boat, and perhaps even looking toward retirement.

Instead, the 45-year-old is scouring job listings and attended job fairs. Unfortunately, he has some company in that pursuit: his wife, Nadine, who has been unemployed since March of 2008.

For the Tuckers, who live in Rio Rancho, N.M., with their three boys, it seemed bad enough when Nadine lost her job of 10 years selling yellow page advertising.

“When I lost my job, the rug just pretty much got pulled out from beneath us,” she said.

Video: More families moving in together

The family also quickly dealt with a series of other issues, including their house flooding and a seriously ill family member.

Still, Nadine, 43, figured it would only be a month or two until she landed something new. Instead, she found few job openings that offered benefits, let alone a salary comparable to her old one.

Recently, she took a government test in the hopes that she will be hired to help gather census data, and she has lowered her salary requirements in an effort to keep herself from being priced out of other possible jobs.

“It’s not my goal to make less than I was making, but at the same time it’s my goal to be employed,” she said.

She’s also considering going back to school for a career in nursing.

Her husband, Tony, had worked as a maintenance technician for about a year and a half before being laid off, and six months later he found a job as a production coordinator. Then he was hired back as a maintenance technician — only to be laid off again seven months later.

Tony also has found that there are few jobs available that pay as well as his old job. He qualifies for unemployment benefits, but with a mortgage, a car payment and three kids, he said, “We can’t last long without a job.”

For now, the couple is focusing on keeping their kids’ lives stable and the mortgage paid on the house they’ve owned for nearly 10 years. Nadine says a bright side is that they get to spend more time with her children.

“I have been able to see their games, and I have been able to help them with their homework, but there’s no money coming in,” she said.

While she struggles to stay positive, she concedes that it’s hard not to be struck by how different their life looks now than it did a few short years ago.

“It’s almost surreal — you almost think it really couldn’t be happening, this is not the way my life is supposed to go,” she said. “But then you have to stop and kind of breathe.”

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