NORTH ANDOVER — The fenced backyard is a bounty of suburban splendor – wisteria-shaded arbor, Weber grill, a 16-by-32-foot swimming pool. “They’re ready,” Jessica Wood calls as she sets a platter of strawberry soy milk smoothies in plastic tumblers on the patio table.
In the mind of her 4-year-old, the moment calls not for refreshments but for whacking his sister with a pool noodle.
“Emmett Collins Wood!” Jessica warns, her voice dropping an octave.
The boy retreats, and it’s a good thing because Nanna and Papa are within earshot. Jessica worries the hubbub rattles her parents’ nerves, unbundles the calm of their home where she, her husband, Randy, and their two children have come to live in a bid to escape their financial mess.
Jessica and Randy didn’t take losses on real estate. They didn’t lose their jobs. But they joined in the easy-credit run-up to the Great Recession, which has left them with a heap of debts that has devoured their paychecks and their future, most recently, their 401(k). “We were always just barely making it,” says Jessica, a public school teacher. “Which is why we’re trying something different.”
So they are here, he in Carhartt denims and she with modishly pinned blond pigtails, in the 1937 Colonial-style, four-bedroom that her parents, Anne and Barry Low, bought with their teaching salaries when they were nearly 10 years younger then she is now.
It’s a striking juxtaposition: Two couples, both college-educated, both married, both rooted in teaching. For Anne and Barry, the path led to the heart of the middle class. For Jessica and Randy, 30 years later, the path has produced only uncertainty.
Across America, political candidates are warring over how best to shore up the middle class. Republican US Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, his Democratic opponent in the closely watched Senate race, barely speak a sentence without mention of the group.
But just who falls into the middle class is a matter of open debate. Economists wield formulas, but more often, middle class is a self-appended label — one that fewer Americans apply to themselves after the Great Recession, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The route to this most basic American dream seems more uncertain than ever.
Jessica and Randy’s bank account doesn’t look middle-class. Their credit doesn’t qualify. Nor does their car, a barely alive 2002 Saturn they call Big Red that’s been sounding like a mournful cat of late.
Yet they will cheer Maisie at her North Andover Soccer Association games. They will enroll Emmett in karate. They will buy a black desk from Ikea, snug enough to fit in the room that was Jessica’s when she was a girl.
“I feel,” Jessica says, “like I’ve been grandfathered into the middle class.”
Path to debt
Shortly before 9 a.m., the video screens mounted on clothing racks at Kohl’s announce temporarily slashed prices under headlines proclaiming, “Power Hour Specials.”
“These!” Maisie says in the shoe section, pointing to a pair of particularly glittered sneakers called Twinkle Toes. Jessica nods and her mother puts them in the cart with other back-to-school items. Emmett likes sneakers with Spiderman crawling on their fronts. “No, they’re hideous,” Jessica says under her breath. She picks up blue and fluorescent yellow Nikes with a $59 price tag. “We can do better than that,” she says, putting them back.
At the register, it is Anne who hands over her Kohl’s credit card while Jessica corrals Maisie and Emmett. “How’d we do?” Jessica inquires afterward in the parking lot. “Good,” Anne says. “180 for everything.”
Jessica will pay her back. The store credit card sliced some 30 percent from the price and Jessica doesn’t have one. Neither she nor Randy has any credits cards because no company will trust them with one.
Not with $60,000 in outstanding student loans, and credit card debt racked up in college that still runs into the thousands. “I was buying groceries and books on the card,” says Randy, the cool-headed son of a factory worker who had little means to help him at Alfred University. There once was a charge for a futon when he needed a bed.
Jessica was a theater major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose dramatic flair extended to finances. “Middle class?” she quips now. “I didn’t want to be in any class!” She amassed her debt in a freshman year spending blitz funded by a Discover card she signed up for in the student center on campus. “I went to a cash machine until it said I couldn’t have more,” she said. “I was very artsy, and I wasn’t going to live past 21.”
The debts followed them as they surfed career paths — together waiting tables at a restaurant and counseling troubled teens. After marrying in 2004, Randy turned to beer brewing and Jessica to teaching. There were other gambits along the way. In 2007, they moved West with then-2-year-old Maisie to a yurt in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where Randy trained to become a wilderness counselor. Randy’s training left no time to earn money. In three months, they were broke.
Back in Massachusetts, they hunkered down. Jessica took a job at a Springfield charter school, Randy became manager of the Northampton Brewery. They blended with the other parents in chunky eyeglasses shopping at the River Valley Coop. They saw Joy Kills Sorrow at the Iron Horse Music Hall. They ran the 5k at Red Fire Farm’s Tomato Festival.
Financially, though, they were unraveling. They brought home $4,500 a month after taxes, and once they’d paid $1,200 for rent; $1,500 for child care for two children after the birth of Emmett; $500 for utilities, car insurance, and gas; and $800 for food, they had too little left over for the creditors who had come calling.
They trimmed their handful of extras, buying no-spray vegetables from farm stands rather than organic-labeled ones in stores. They nixed the idea of ski trips. But the demands didn’t relent.
“The credit card companies would bully Randy into paying more than we could afford,” Jessica said. “It was causing heartache in our relationship because it felt like we were more and more trapped.”
They hatched a plan: Randy would become a teacher, a job that offered better hours and greater security than the brewery. But he would have to leave the brewery job to do the two-year training, and they couldn’t survive on one salary.
In April, Jessica’s father called. “If things are hard, there’s always here.”
They were 37 and 38, parents of a kindergartner and a preschooler, and out of options. The four-bedroom house it was.
On a Thursday afternoon, two weeks after they arrived in North Andover, Randy is in the kitchen in a T-shirt and shorts, his workaday wear shed upstairs. Jessica, just home from a union meeting at her new school in Lawrence, kisses his cheek. “How’d it go?”
“They were interviewing a lot of people,” Randy says of the opening at a Lawrence elementary school that would provide pocket money and experience he needs for his teaching license. “But he said he’d make a decision soon.”
“Great!” Jessica says.
A sense of possibility bubbles as Randy’s prospect reminds everyone why they are all here, awkwardly packed in the kitchen — Maisie and Emmett, spinning with hunger as corn dogs heat in the microwave, their parents and grandparents backed into the kitchen’s corners.
The room is a sizable space, but in a 20th-century way. When Anne and Barry overhauled the kitchen a few years back, adding Brazilian granite countertops, recessed lighting, and a stainless steel stove, they didn’t knock down the dining room wall to create a great room.
The shuttered yellow house is among the nicest in the neighborhood, half a block from an Olmsted-designed park and the Stevens Memorial Library. Last Barry and Anne knew, it was valued at $400,000 – a sum they’ve likely added to with the kitchen redo and pool.
That they live in this house is homage to the original middle-class playbook.
Their grandparents were immigrants: His were Scots from the town of Arbroath who came to work in Andover’s Tyer Rubber Co., a belching plant that produced waders and floats; on her side were Croatian and English newcomers, one a stowaway who later worked the docks of New York unloading the Queen Mary. Their fathers were skilled workers, a master electrician and a production control manager at Tyer. Anne and Barry, who met in junior high in Andover, were the first in their families to get bachelor’s degrees– he from Lowell State Teacher’s College in 1967 and she from UMass Amherst in 1970.
In teaching, they saw the promise of jobs that allowed them to do good and escape the factories where, working summer jobs, they had watched workers worry over making quotas and blow their paychecks betting at Rockingham Park.
“Teaching was solid,” Anne says. “You worked hard and you bought a starter home and moved on eventually, and there was a degree of certainty — at least you believed — that you knew how it was going to turn out.”
Which, sure enough, it did. When their home in Dracut grew too small in 1977, they bought the four-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath in North Andover for $56,000. There were no grand vacations. But there were visits to the Museum of Fine Arts where the Lows handed their three girls postcards depicting famous paintings and told them to find the originals. Come summer, the girls rode bikes in the park. The Lows didn’t fund college accounts. “That wasn’t something we could do,” Anne says. Instead, they took out second mortgages on the house to pay tuitions.
Now 64 and 67, they are both retired, Anne after teaching social studies in middle school for 32 years, and Barry after 39 years as a music teacher. Their pension brings in $127,000 annually before taxes. It’s enough for Anne to return from the Stonewall Kitchen outlet with a table’s worth of peach amaretto jam, chocolate ganache cake kit, farmhouse pancake and waffle mix. Enough for Barry to buy a baby grand piano, a digital that never goes out of tune.
And enough to come to the aid of their children.
To Jessica and Randy, over the years, they’ve turned over the keys of many an old car. Emmett and Maisie’s new snow boots and pants have arrived regularly courtesy of Nanna and Papa.
This juncture feels different, though. Jessica and Randy’s deepened money troubles spring from an economy that seems to them crueler and less fair than the one they’d known. “We didn’t get trapped early on,” Anne says. Tuition at Lowell State was $150 a year. You couldn’t get a credit card if you didn’t have a job. The reward for modest but stable salaries was a fully funded pension.
In the spring, they had considered the pros and cons of opening their home to Jessica, Randy, and the kids. They enjoyed its free-form quiet. She had her book club. He played accordion in high school productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Together, they volunteered at a Lawrence kindergarten, where each December, Barry dressed up as Santa Claus, his luxurious white beard grown long.
“We must be out of our minds,” Anne recalls thinking at the time. But then there was this. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my children,” Barry says.
And so, they wired the extra bedrooms with cable. “Because,” Barry says, “everyone needs their own space.” He hired a worker to file down the door to his music studio so that it fully closes, the better to prevent Emmett’s fingers from finding their way to his iMac. They set a basket in the kitchen for grocery receipts to be split between the couples.
On this afternoon, the kids’ corn dogs eaten, the family spills out of the kitchen and scatters. Jessica takes Emmett and Maisie to the library. Anne and Barry find shade in the backyard under the arbor. Randy soon joins them, his face shaded with worry.
“So that phone call was the principal,” he tells them. “He offered the job to someone with more experience.”
“Well,” Anne says pertly, “something is sure to open up. Things always open up before the start of school. It’s just the way of things.”
Randy nods. He appreciates the cheerleading. But he can’t help himself; he is bummed. “At least I’m moving forward with graduate school.”
A car crisis
Big Red is dying. A mechanic says the Saturn may sputter for a bit more, but it’s not safe to drive and won’t be until $1,500 in repairs are made.
The $4,000 that Randy and Jessica cashed out of their 401(k) to tide them over during the paycheck-less portion of summer has already dwindled — $140 gone for Lands’ End backpacks for the kids, $220 to Pentucket Medical ExpressCare to treat Randy’s bout of poison ivy, and $500 for Emmett’s preschool deposit.
A mechanic at the garage her parents use says he knows of a 2003 Highlander they could get for $10,000.
They can’t drive their children in an unsafe car. They won’t ask her parents for the money.
So on a searingly hot afternoon, days before the start of school, Jessica sits in the office of a local credit union. She is streaked with dust and sweat from cleaning desks and cutting bubble-shaped letters exhorting soon-to-arrive students to “persevere” in her un-air conditioned classroom. Signs above the loan officer’s desk promise car loan rates as low as 1.99 APR. “Apply today!” Jessica knows better. “Where are the bad credit rates? Because that’s where I’m going to be.”
The officer hands Jessica a laminated page and points to the far right column where rates range from 13.49 percent to 14.09 percent. Small print below tacks on another 2 percent for older models, like the Highlander.
Jessica nods. Sixteen percent is her penance.
“The other day my mom said, ‘You’re in the same boat as 70 percent of Americans.’ But it always feels like a personal failure,” Jessica says. “Like I’ve made these bad decisions and so maybe that’s the way it’s going to go for me.”
A day later, someone from the credit union calls. No, she and Randy may not have a loan — even at 16 percent.
The thing about children, Anne says, is you want them to fly free. To be a person on their own terms.
“But we do vicariously feel their pressures,” Barry says.
Jessica and Randy feel trapped. Again. This time, by lives that demand two cars. Anne and Barry worry about their quandary. But they worry more about Emmett and Maisie lashed into booster seats that will do little good in the aged Saturn.
Barry and Anne place a call to the manager of the local bank. It’s where they do all their banking. They are on a first-name basis with the manager. Could they cosign a car loan for our daughter and son-in-law?
The branch manager empathizes. But regulations bar a loan to people with credit as poor as Jessica and Randy’s. He has a suggestion, though. The Lows could borrow the money themselves.
Barry approaches Randy while he is washing the dinner dishes with an offer. Jessica and Randy would be responsible for the monthly payments, which, at 8.5 percent, would come to $91 a month. The offer means Randy could tote the kids to school in the Highlander, and Jessica could drive the Saturn, as long as it lasts, to her job in Lawrence.
The decision is apparent for Randy. “He made it clear he didn’t want to be out any money. I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t think we could make the payments.”
His confidence is backed up by his new job as a teacher’s aide, snagged days before the start of school, working for the principal who turned him down for a substitute position. The job pays $9 an hour, enough to cover the monthly payments.
For Jessica, the calculation is more complicated.
“A year ago, I remember sobbing because I had to ask them for something – feeling just horrible and like I had disappointed them because there was an expectation that I could be self-sufficient. Now, I have a newfound acceptance. For us, now, in our lives, we need this help. And my parents are generous, and they give what they can give.”
“They do,” she goes on, as if insisting to herself, “draw boundaries.”
Anne is wearing the Williams-Sonoma apron. It’s her night to cook and she carries a tureen of baked chicken to the dining room table. The children are upstairs watching videos, and the adults forgo the nightly dinner-time “say-one-good-thing-from-your-day.”
Wine is poured. A memory comes back to Jessica. Of a question she overheard Maisie ask her grandmother shortly after they had moved to North Andover: “Nanna, how can you afford such a beautiful apartment?”
Jessica sighs. “We will never be able to pay you back.”
Her father opens his mouth, as if to protest. But Jessica cuts him off. “Don’t even go there,” she says. There is no way to quantify their generosity, so there is no way to pay it back.
“There’s not even a tally,” she says. Her father nods. “The past is gone,” he says gently.
The dishes are washed. Anne stretches on a couch in the living room. Barry opens the baby grand keyboard. “In honor of the late Andy Williams,” he says and begins to play “Moon River.” Upstairs, where Jessica and Randy are tucking Maisie and Emmett into their bunk bed, the music drifts in:
“We’re after the same rainbow’s end.
Waitin’ round the bend.”
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.