Editor’s note: Third in a series about helping the middle class deal with the struggles of today’s economy.
SUMMERVILLE — On cold winter nights Sara and Eddie Shealy like to snuggle under a blanket on the couch with the dogs, watching a movie.
This year, the blanket might be thicker.
“Last February we literally turned the heat off,” Sara said. This winter she expects to again — anything to cut down on the bills.
The Shealys shouldn’t be a struggling family. Two years ago, they had a combined income in the $70,000 range. Then the bottom dropped out. Eddie was laid off from a construction supplies job and has worked off-and-on since; Sara, a medical clerk, has been forced to take a second job.
The second job is a new fact of life in the Lowcountry middle class, even among two-income families. It might be the only way for a lot of families to keep up.
Costs keep rising — everything from prescriptions to school supplies — while wages just don’t.
After rising steadily for most of a decade, per-capita incomes in the three counties around Charleston have gone flat.
Middle income wage earners took the hardest hits in the 2008 recession — 60 percent of the job losses, according to a National Employment Law Project report. Those wage earners have gotten only 22 percent of new jobs.
While low-wage employment has risen by 8.7 percent since 2001, mid-wage jobs have fallen by 7.3 percent.
Getting ahead seems more of a daydream than the American dream.
For middle income families like the Shealys, the reality is all but crushing.
They live in a comfortable home in a modest middle-class subdivision, the kind of place where lawns are edged.
Their great room is decorated with ceramic owls, book-ended by two large-screen televisions. The framed sign on the wall and the lettered sign above a door say the same thing: “Live. Laugh. Love.”
The televisions were gifts and only one is hooked up. Their furniture isn’t much more than two couches and a kitchen table.
Eddie worked in construction services. Home building crashed hard in the 2008 recession, and he could see it coming.
With the drop-off in his business, he was laid off from a job he held for eight years.
He got a job with a concrete company, but was laid off. Then it was a building supply company. Then another.
“All the building and construction just went downhill,” he said. He’s been out of work now for six months.
Sara is a medical laboratory lead clerk at the Medical University of South Carolina. It pays well, but it hasn’t been enough.
They sold his truck to save a $400 payment, bought an older one for a few hundred dollars. They scaled back on cable, telephones and Internet.
“We just cut back wherever we could. The dogs have to eat,” she said. Sara launched a home party business selling wickless candles.
It wasn’t enough.
Within a year, Sara had to get a second job. She now follows long days at the lab with shifts at the Summerville YMCA watching children and helping them with homework.
She leaves the house at 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t get home until late. Her average work week is 60-80 hours. A few weeks ago she worked 86 hours.
They’re earning a little more than half their previous income, and bills keep rising — food, gasoline, insurance. Their mortgage recently went up $150 per month, an increase of more than 10 percent.
Her family helps, paying them for odd chores on the weekends. Eddie finds spot building jobs. But it seems like every time he brings home a check, something chews up the money. He came home with $600 a few weeks back, and an emergency trip to a veterinarian ended up costing $500.
Sara’s checks from the YMCA pay for the groceries.
“We’re not scraping by. We’re definitely losing ground. We’re short every month,” she said.
Now they face a winter where the prices of meat, cereals and bakery goods are expected to climb as much as 4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cost of heat will climb, too.
The Shealys are running out of rope. The price of milk rose 25 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the National Employment Law Project; the price of gasoline rose 38 percent.
Meanwhile, Sara lost a carpool ride when a co-worker moved and now has to absorb the fuel costs of a 40-mile daily round trip to MUSC.
“Gasoline,” she said, “is ridiculous.”
They worry. They hope. Eddie has filled out roughly 125 job applications and had only eight interviews.
But he interviewed with a supply company last week that was looking for someone with his experience. He interviewed for another job Thursday afternoon by telephone.
Building is picking up, he said, and that means his chances are, too.
“I’m taking it one day at a time. I pray every day, cross my fingers hoping something will come through. I try to stay positive.”
After long days as a medical clerk, Sara finds herself still looking forward to working with children.
“At least it’s a (second) job I love to go to,” she said.
One way or another, she knows her family will be there for them.
“I’m scared,” she said. “But I feel I’m very fortunate.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.