Laid off from two jobs in the past year, Ronald Padgett of North Charleston has four years left on his mortgage, two years of car payments due and just $2,000 in the bank. He's nearly 60 years old and wonders who will hire him in a market glutted with unemployed job-seekers much younger than he is.
Padgett has been through layoffs before. He saw a 20-year career as a welder evaporate when the former Charleston Naval Base shut down in 1993. But he's never seen anything like today's economic turmoil and the rattling uncertainty that's taken root across the nation.
"People are trying to survive and they're scared," said Padgett, who most recently worked as a quality control inspector. "I've never had a problem getting a job in my life. I get frustrated, and I can't sleep some nights. I worry about what's going to happen when the money runs out."
Padgett is far from alone. The financial meltdown has hit people from all walks of life squarely in the pocketbook, and they are smarting. They've lost homes, jobs, savings. They struggle to pay the bills and keep the faith as Wall Street bleeds, unemployment rates rise and economic pillars like General Motors teeter on the verge of collapse.
Two recent national polls indicate that President Barack Obama enjoys the solid support of nearly six in 10 Americans and that people remain willing to stay with him as he tries to right this foundering ship.
But amid the grand plans, bailouts and debates over stimulus spending, the average Joe is increasingly worried, stressed, frustrated and angry as his savings shrink and his future is manipulated by unseen forces outside his control.
A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that one-third of Americans are losing sleep over the state of the U.S. economy and other personal financial concerns.
Clinical psychologist Brian Sullivan said an "immense amount" of frustration exists across the country. People are working longer and seeing fewer returns. They are frightened, he said, and it's affecting their sleep, their families and their productivity at work.
"What I hear people verbalize is a common frustration that there is so little they can do and also a frustration borne from a sense of injustice that those who created the problem are being let off the hook while they themselves pay the price," said Sullivan, associate director of counseling and substance abuse at the College of Charleston.
This collective angst has boiled over at times in public ways as people look for somewhere to direct their anger, whether it be at banks, politicians, corporate fat cats or others. Perhaps the most recent examples were the Tax Day "Tea Party" protests that took place last week in Charleston and across the country. While some pundits dismissed the events as something egged on by Fox News and the Republican Party, some folks who showed up simply were looking to vent their impatience with the current state of the nation.
Herbert Osburn of Goose Creek didn't attend, but he understands some of the sentiment. He's struggled to make ends meet since losing his mechanic's job last year, and now the government is raising taxes on cigarettes, one of the few simple pleasures he has left. "It's just too much," he groused.
The country was scarred by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the economic collapse has been a full body blow, resonating through every corner of the nation. For the first time in a long time, the American public as a whole is hurting.
The Rev. Spike Coleman of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in West Ashley sees the pain and helplessness in his congregation and his community. "People are struggling, and they don't have experience or coping skills for dealing with this," he said. "I think a lot of people don't know where to turn."
Africa Alston of North Charleston empathizes. For some time after the mother of three was laid off from a national car rental calling center last year, Alston felt as if she and her family "were fighting a war on our own." But the family has stayed afloat on her husband Henry's salary as a machinist, and they've depended more than ever on their religious faith to calm their fears in bad times.
Alston said she has seen others torn up by the tension. A friend of her husband's recently died of a heart attack amid the stress of losing his longtime job, she said.
Sullivan, the psychologist, said people need to remind themselves to be bigger than the problems they are facing and remain compassionate and kind to those around them.
Coleman said people should seek partnerships and common ground. He sees the downturn as an occasion for the country to appreciate the hardships of less affluent nations and to move beyond the greed that got us here to a more sustainable way of living.
"This is an amazing opportunity to look at what life is really about," he said.