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 LBassett@huffingtonpost.com.
Two years ago, Ben and Jennifer Agins of Somerset County, New Jersey, thought they were on track to finally purchase their first house. She was making $65,000 a year as a patent administrator for a pharmaceutical company, he was making $55,000 a year as the manager of residential business for Edison Overhead, and they were comfortably supporting their four kids in addition to one foster child.
That dream of homeownership began to slip away in August of 2008 when Jennifer's job was outsourced, leaving Ben to support their family of seven on his salary alone. Adding insult to injury, Agins says he was told that he would not be receiving his 3 to 5 percent salary raise that year or for the next few years, since the tanking economy had put a dent in his business.
"My wife and I used to be middle class," Agins, 38, wrote in an email to HuffPost. "Now we're the 'working poor.' We have 5 children that we are trying to support on my 55k salary, but we have been unable to get any government assistance because we make too much money."
Agins says his wife has been aggressively applying for jobs, everywhere from Quickcheck, the local convenience store, to FedEx, but every job she finds either offers her less money than she receives on unemployment or rejects her for not having the right kind of experience. She has been out of work for almost two years now.
"It's gotten pretty tough," Agins said. "Not only was she making more money than me, but she had the benefits through a major corporation. When she lost that job, I had to pick up the benefits here, which were more than double the cost of what she was paying."
Jennifer is currently training to do medical billing for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and in the meantime, Ben says, the family is just trying to get by.
"It took her 18 months to get into that program," Agin said. "Somehow we've managed to pay rent every month, although we were late a couple times. We're starting to get used to living on less."
Agins says he doesn't mind the lifestyle changes as much, although he hates having to say no to his kids. His daughter's cheerleading team placed third in a national championship in 2008, but he had to pull her off last year's team because it got too expensive. He says he also had to tell his 15-year-old son that he could no longer attend his favorite summer skateboarding camp.
"They've since gotten over it," he said. "My 18-year-old got lucky -- a friend of the family donated a car when he got his driver's license. I couldn't have given him that."
Despite all of their financial challenges, the Aginses seem to be hopeful about the next few years -- Ben says his wife is one of the top students in her vocational class, and his business is showing signs of picking up.
"We're already seeing people start to spend money a little, fix up their houses," he said. "So we're just holding out until things turn around."