A struggle to make ends meet

Middle class, buried in bills, cutting back, and reaching out for help

Cori Desmond and Joe Zeuli look for ways to save. On weekends, they try to spend time at home with the children, Connor, Deanna, and Georgieanna. Cori Desmond and Joe Zeuli look for ways to save. On weekends, they try to spend time at home with the children, Connor, Deanna, and Georgieanna. (Boston Globe Photo / Wiqan Ang)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / February 24, 2008

First in a series of occasional articles.

Their days of dashing to Dunkin' Donuts on the way to work are history. So, too, are their Friday night family outings at Friendly's. And forget about a vacation to Disney World, though their 4-year-old, who is obsessed with Sleeping Beauty, still dreams about that trip.

These days, Cori Desmond and Joe Zeuli could use a bit of magic to keep their kingdom afloat, because the bills in their Peabody home seem ready to swamp the place.

"Our credit cards are maxed out," Desmond said. "We're playing catch-up and trying to pay them down."

They've got plenty of company.

Soaring costs of essentials such as housing, healthcare, and transportation, in the face of stagnant pay, are squeezing countless middle-class families, many to the brink. More than half have no financial assets, or have debt levels that exceed their assets, according to a recent Brandeis University study called "By a Thread, The New Experience of America's Middle Class."

Throughout Boston's northern suburbs, directors of social service agencies that have long served impoverished families say they are witnessing a rising tide of requests for heating, rental, and mortgage assistance from middle-class households. Many have to be turned away because the families earn slightly more than the limit that would make them eligible.

"If you are in the middle class, there are no safety-net programs for you, and yet you are paying the same as most wealthy people for most of your costs," said Jack Mogielnicki, executive director of Lynn Economic Opportunity, an antipoverty agency. "Water and sewer bills are going through the roof, and your property taxes have gone up because the cities and towns are in as bad a shape as you are."

The squeeze is hitting home within Mogielnicki's organization, where once a year workers are allowed to tap cash from their pension funds.

"We have middle-class workers who have to go back to that piggy bank, their only piggy bank, to catch up with the bills that have caught up with them. There's nowhere else to go," Mogielnicki said. "I am terrified for them."

In the Desmond-Zeuli household, socking away for the future has mostly become a thing of the past. With three children, ages 9, 5, and 4, the bills seem to be adding up to more than the paychecks from Desmond's job as an office administrator in a Wakefield financial services firm and Zeuli's machinist position in Essex.

Grocery shopping has become a hunt for sales, coupons, and generic brands. Gone are most snacks for the kids: melted Monterey Jack cheese over nacho chips, a favorite, is a faded memory. Fruit is bought in bulk because it's cheaper.

The couple is paying $200 a week for day care and after-school programs, while shouldering $300 monthly car payments on Desmond's 2003 Ford Taurus, which has 90,000 miles on it. And then there is health insurance, car insurance, utility bills, and $1,850 rent on a four-bedroom, two-bath apartment, which includes heat. They are struggling to save for a house, let alone for college.

"I want them to go to college," said Desmond, 33.

"I don't want to say the only way they can go to college is through the military or have them pay student loans until they are 90," added Zeuli, 35.

As the difference in earnings between high school and college graduates hits record levels, a college degree is becoming a minimum requirement for entry into the middle class, according to the Brandeis study, which defined middle class as households earning at least two times, and not more than six times, the federal poverty level. For a family of five, that's between $49,600 and $148,800. The Desmond-Zeuli household income is about $60,000.

But increasingly, social service providers and lawmakers say the government's poverty guidelines are seriously out of whack with the times. The guidelines are issued each year for determining eligibility for various programs such as home heating assistance. For instance, income eligibility for heating help in Massachusetts is capped at two times the poverty level, or $49,600 for a family of five.

"If you doubled that, I would tell you that family is still struggling on the North Shore. All you would have to do is line up their costs next to their income," said Beth Hogan, executive director of North Shore Community Action Programs, a Peabody-based anti-poverty agency.

"The way people have lived a middle-class existence has changed, saving toward retirement, being able to retire at a certain age," she said. "Being middle class meant keeping your debt levels down. All of that is out the windows now."

Just ask Maggie Meffen, a social service advocate at Action, Inc., a Gloucester-based agency that serves the Cape Ann area. Increasingly, Meffen is hearing from middle-class homeowners who are seeking help with their bills. One recent case that sticks with her is a Gloucester woman who quit her job to take care of her husband after his heart attack.

Their health insurance had stopped paying for his home care, so she tapped into their savings to cover the mounting costs.

At the same time, the income from a rental unit the couple owned had dried up. With a housing market gone bust and ample rental vacancies in Gloucester, they had been unable to rent their unit.

"Now she hasn't been able to pay January's mortgage, and these are people who have owned their home for 10-plus years," Meffen said. "It's not like a rare thing anymore. We are seeing more and more people who are in that middle class that are now having to come, out of desperation, to places like Action, saying 'Is there anything you can do?' "

As Desmond and Zeuli place their dreams of owning a home on hold, they scrounge for more ways to save. They are running out of places to look.

"Even something as simple as a Christmas account that a bank sets up so you can put 10 bucks or 20 bucks a week in, just so at Christmas time you have money set aside," is a struggle, Zeuli said.

"Twenty bucks isn't there anymore after all your expenses are paid."

Kay Lazar can be reached at

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