Living on food stamps in middle-class suburbia

@CNNMoney June 12, 2012: 12:14 PM ET

MORRIS COUNTY, N.J. (CNNMoney) -- Since the recession, persistent unemployment has left middle-class life out of reach for millions of Americans.

But few residents of Morris County, N.J., could have ever imagined they would end up on government assistance.

Morris County is known for its wealth and million-dollar homes. Median household income there is over $91,000. Yet, the number of people receiving food stamps in the area has nearly tripled in the past five years.

Phyllis Tonnesen is on the front lines of the epidemic. She works for the Department of Human Services Office of Temporary Assistance. In her 27 years at the agency, she says this is the worst she's ever seen it.

The food stamp caseload has increased 240% since the beginning of the recession.

"These people thought they had the American Dream," Tonnesen said. "They had decent jobs, a home, a new car every five years, took the kids to the shore for vacation. Suddenly here they are applying for food stamps."

The Smiths are one of those families. That's not their real name. They want to keep their identity secret so their three kids won't be teased at school.

Four years ago, Mr. Smith lost his six-figure job of twenty years at a telecom company and ended up selling shoes for $10 an hour.

He quickly depleted his 401(k) as the family went from $130,000 a year in income to just $15,000. In this area of New Jersey, the United Way says it takes at least $60,000 a year for a family of four just to get by.

The $250 in food stamps his family gets could come to an end soon because he has a new job selling janitorial supplies, putting him over the threshold for aid. He's now making about $15 an hour, while his wife works part-time at a local bakery, for $9 an hour. That's raised their yearly income to about $18,000.

"The help has dropped out so rather than getting ahead with a bit more money we are just treading water," says Mr. Smith.

Unable to sell their home, the Smiths stopped making mortgage payments in 2009 and expect to be foreclosed on any day now. At that point, they hope they'll be able to move in with friends.

The Smiths say their three children are learning some valuable lessons about life and the value of a dollar. Their daughter is a junior in high school and has been working as waitress at a local burger joint for the past two years. Their 18-year-old son is graduating from high school and already has a job at the local auto repair shop.

Their 15-year-old son is worried he will have to move away from his home and friends. "It's tough," he says. "We've been here a long time and this is where we spent most of our lives. Losing the house is tough." To top of page

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