05/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Former Middle Class Family Loses Sight Of The American Dream

As part of our Bearing Witness 2.0 project, the Huffington Post is rounding up local stories of formerly middle-class families who are now struggling to stay afloat. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please e-mail me at

Heather Tanner put herself through law school, working during the day and attending classes at night, so that one day she and her family could move out of their two-bedroom rental apartment and buy a house. She saw that dream slip away in August of last year, when she was laid off from her job as an attorney and was unable to find work.

"Before I got laid off, they were talking about year-end bonuses, and I put in as many hours as I could so I could hit that mark," said Tanner, who lives with her family in Pacifica, California. "My husband and I were going to use that bonus as a down payment for our house. You go from dreaming about that house you want and having a backyard to not even being able to pay the rent on your apartment. My six-year-old will say things like, 'Mommy, you can have my money for the new house.' But the dream is out the window -- it will be years now."

As an attorney for an insurance defense firm, Tanner was making about $100,000 a year. Since being laid off, she has been working two hours a day at her son's school to supplement her $450-a-week unemployment checks. She told HuffPost that she is willing to take a job doing just about anything, as long as it's legal.

"I've applied for jobs at Target, Macy's, as a camp counselor. I've been on many interviews, but the comments I get at non-legal jobs are, 'Why do you need a job?' I mean, I have a family to support."

Tanner says that because day care is so expensive in California, she and her husband Carl decided it would make the most sense for him to stay home and take care of their two children, now ages 4 and 6, while she worked full-time to support them. But now that Carl really needs a job, he is having a hard time finding one.

"He's been out of work for seven years raising our kids, so there's not really a resumé to send out," Tanner said.

Like many former middle-class families, Tanner says that she and her husband have had to make some major lifestyle changes to be able to make rent each month. They've cashed out their 401K, they've used all their savings to pay the bills, and this month, the Pacifica Resource Center stepped in to help them with rent because their unemployment check arrived late. Now, Tanner says she's worried about what will happen in May, when her next rent check is due.

"We don't have anything extra," Tanner told HuffPost. "Sometimes we decide who's going to drive that week by how much we have for gas money. We don't have TV anymore, we don't go to the movies, we don't have vacations anymore. But some of that's good -- we've found new ways to be creative and play games at home."

Tanner says that her son Joshua is the only person in the family who has health insurance. Joshua was able to qualify for the low-cost Healthy Families insurance program because he has asthma, but she, Carl and their 4-year-old daughter Natalie are currently without coverage.

Tanner hopes that her daughter will remain healthy until their situation improves. What bothers her the most, she says, is the idea of disappointing her kids.

"The kids don't understand," she said. "Natalie really wants to go to Disneyland for her birthday. She'll say things like, 'But Cinderella invited me!' That's what hurts me, because I'd love to make their dreams come true, but right now we just have to focus on getting by."

She added: "I'm not ashamed of where we are. Most people know four or five people that have been laid off. All we can do is just keep looking for work until we find it."