The Great Recession Knocked Them Down. Only Some Got Up Again.
Recession stories tend to begin the same way: lost job, lost home, lost savings. How they end varies much more widely.
New York Times reporters interviewed hundreds of people during the Great Recession, many of them in the midst of their darkest days. We spoke with five of them again.
In recent weeks, we returned to them to find out what happened next. A few have thrived, overcoming the recession or even using it as a springboard to success. Some were able to find their footing, but could not make up all the ground they had lost.
For others, the recession was the moment when it all fell apart. Many seemed to disappear entirely, leaving a trail of disconnected phones, outdated addresses and abandoned Facebook profiles.
The individuals we spoke with come from different backgrounds, industries and parts of the country. But for all of them, there were specific moments — right or wrong decisions, bits of good luck or misfortune — that determined where they are today.
Here are five of their stories.
The Long Road Back
Dante Whitfield has come a long way in nine years.
When The Times interviewed Mr. Whitfield in 2009, he was jobless and soon to be homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches and living on items from the McDonald’s Value Menu.
“I remember some nights being so hungry that you’re eating ketchup or mustard out of the containers,” Mr. Whitfield, 44, said today. Now he is a real estate agent in Tacoma, Wash., developing clients, building up his savings and, for the first time in more than a decade, planning for the future.
“I’m feeling more financially secure than I have in probably 20 years,” he said.
Mr. Whitfield took a winding path to his newfound security. He moved to California in 1999, just in time to ride the dot-com roller coaster. He was single and in his mid-20s, and soon he was working at a communications company in Silicon Valley, earning $60,000 as an executive assistant.
Even the bursting of the tech bubble proved only a minor setback. Mr. Whitfield quickly found a job in San Diego, then eventually found his way back to San Francisco when the economy recovered. Saving, he said, was never on his mind.
“I just took it for granted,” he said. “I was once again making big-time money, and I thought it was going to stay that way.”
It didn’t. Mr. Whitfield was laid off again in 2007, and this time there was no quick recovery. For the next two years, he was mostly unemployed, and even when he eventually found work, he was barely scraping by. At one point he worked three jobs that together paid just $500 a week. He battled depression.
Eventually, however, Mr. Whitfield found his way to Tacoma, where his girlfriend encouraged him to follow a longtime dream of getting into the real estate business. He got his broker’s license in January and quickly built a client base. Mr. Whitfield said he is about to close his seventh deal since March, for a total of $1.6 million in sales.
“These other Realtors don’t know what being starving is, what being homeless is,” he said. “It gives me an advantage.”
On his feet again, Mr. Whitfield is sticking to a budget and making backup plans in case the real estate market softens.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” he said. “We all have our dry spells.”
A Winning Bet
Plan B turned out well for Jason Martin.
Mr. Martin started his senior year in the sport and entertainment management program at the University of South Carolina in the fall of 2008. Shortly after he graduated the following year, the jobless rate for people between 20 and 24 was 15.2 percent.
“My original intention was to get a job,” Mr. Martin said when The Times interviewed him in 2009. “But with the economy, there’s so many people who just graduated who can’t even get a cup of coffee with a prospective employer.” He added, “Graduate school is definitely Plan B.”
Mr. Martin enrolled in a master’s program in sport leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. His parents paid most of his in-state tuition, and a small scholarship covered the rest. Grad school, he said, became a critical steppingstone to getting into a one-year professional development program at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla.
Now Mr. Martin, 31, is a senior consultant at C Space, a market research and consulting agency in Boston. He’s also going to school again, part time, to get an M.B.A. His company’s tuition reimbursement program, a scholarship and his savings are paying the cost.
Mr. Martin is glad about the one-year detour he took in 2009. “I don’t regret it,” he said. “I felt like I needed to get some more seasoning. Four years of college wasn’t really enough to prepare myself for the job market.”
“Had I not gone, I’m not sure where I’d be,” he added. “I still think I’d be successful, but I don’t think I’d have responsibilities I have today.“
Terri Sadler could have been retired by now.
Back in the 1990s, Ms. Sadler worked on the factory floor at a 3M plant in Indiana. It was a good job with benefits and a pension plan that would have let her retire at 55. But Ms. Sadler, then in her early 30s, quit the job on a whim, convinced she could find something better. She never could.
“I got really mad and walked out, and I think that was the beginning of the downturn,” she said. “I never had that feeling of security that I had at that job.”
Still, Ms. Sadler muddled through. She found other factory jobs, including one in the auto industry in the mid-2000s that paid her as much as $18 an hour.
That stability proved short-lived. In 2008, she lost her job and couldn’t find a new one. By the time she spoke to The Times in 2010, her unemployment benefits had been cut off and she was turning to members of her church for help making her car payment.
Ms. Sadler, of Richmond, Ky., has worked on and off the past eight years, but none of the jobs have paid much or lasted long. Her current job, as a receptionist at a car dealership, pays far less than her old factory jobs and requires a 50-mile commute. Even so, she worries it will disappear when her probationary period ends in September. She dreads trying to find another job at age 60.
Ms. Sadler said she tries to remain upbeat, but it has gotten harder. Her car seems to break down every time she manages to save some money, she said. She once dreamed of traveling the country in retirement; now she doubts she will be able to retire at all.
“I would like to go on that vacation, I would like to have this Jeep paid off, I would like to do something for my grandkids, but I just can’t,” she said. “I did not get to live the American dream, and it’s too late.”
Scars That Haven’t Healed
When Meg Fisher lost her job in early 2009, it didn’t feel like a turning point, at least not at first.
Ms. Fisher, a legal secretary, had been laid off before and had always found work quickly. Even in the middle of the recession, she thought her college degree, two decades of experience and strong professional network would help her rebound again.
Instead, it took well over a year for Ms. Fisher to find a job — and when she finally did, the arrangement didn’t last very long. She hasn’t found steady, full-time work since. These days, she isn’t even looking.
“I probably will never be officially full-time employed ever again,” said Ms. Fisher, now 56.
The layoff eliminated more than half her family’s income, which once topped $80,000 per year. Ms. Fisher’s husband had a job as a manager of a local pharmacy, but by the end of 2009, the family was forced to file for bankruptcy. Three years later, the Fishers lost their suburban Atlanta home to foreclosure.
In their worst months, they turned to a food pantry for groceries. They took on boarders — one of whom, they later learned, did heroin while their daughter slept in the next room. Ms. Fisher’s greatest regret, she said, is the effect the family’s hardship has had on her two children, who were in elementary school when she lost her job.
“They don’t remember life when we used to go out to eat whenever we wanted to, or buy stuff that they wanted,” Ms. Fisher said.
Eventually, the Fishers found a measure of stability. Ms. Fisher started a business making custom Jewish prayer shawls, and a mortgage broker she met through a networking group hired her to do administrative work on the side. The family has caught a few breaks, too. A friend helped them buy a house after their foreclosure, and they received a small inheritance from an aunt this year, which helped them pay down medical debt.
But the scars of the recession have never fully healed. Ms. Fisher earns a fraction of her former salary, and the couple, who live in Marietta, Ga., have practically no retirement savings. Once the Fishers’ son graduates from high school, they are considering moving to a cabin in the mountains to save money.
Government statisticians consider any work for pay — even informal, part-time work like Ms. Fisher’s — as “employment.” But she said she doesn’t feel like a part of the traditional work force.
“I believe the reports that unemployment is at a record low, but people like me are not included in that,” Ms. Fisher said. “We’ll never be back to where we were.”
It took nearly a decade, but Guillermo Gonzalez is a homeowner again.
In June 2017, Mr. Gonzalez and his wife closed on a $129,000 two-bedroom house in Spring Hill, Fla., north of Tampa. It has a pool and a yard where their grandchildren can play. Most important, they can afford it.
“It’s not a brand, brand-spanking new house, but it’s very comfortable,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “It’s a good house.”
Mr. Gonzalez’s recession story is a typical one: In 2004, he and his wife bought a house outside Miami with little money down, counting on the ability to refinance to help them make their payments. They borrowed money to fund a lifestyle that, while never lavish, was more than they could afford on his salary working in sales for a liquor distributor.
But when Florida’s housing market collapsed, the Gonzalezes couldn’t refinance. The cooling economy ate into liquor sales, cutting Mr. Gonzalez’s commissions and leaving him unable to make his monthly payments.
When The Times caught up with him in June 2008, Mr. Gonzalez had just received his $1,033 tax rebate, part of President George W. Bush’s effort to stimulate the slumping economy. For Mr. Gonzalez, as for the economy, it was not enough. By the end of the year, his house was in foreclosure and he was filing for bankruptcy.
Mr. Gonzalez bristled at being a renter, paying $1,800 a month to live in a complex “where you couldn’t barbecue, where you couldn’t wash your car, where you couldn’t do nothing.” His sister, who had lost her job selling real estate, moved in for a while.
But gradually, things began to improve. Mr. Gonzalez got a job selling auto parts. He worked to rebuild his credit. By last year, he and his wife were ready to buy again — this time in the Tampa area, where homes are cheaper and they can be closer to their children.
They are being cautious. Once, he said, he would have paid someone to rip out the run-down front lawn. This time, he did the work himself.
“My grass is the greenest in the area,” he said. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride.”
But Mr. Gonzalez, 54, has little in the way of savings and no plans for retirement. His wife stopped working when they moved to Tampa so she could help with the grandchildren, but she is now looking for work to help cover some medical expenses that are coming up.
“We’re doing it one step at a time,” he said.
This content was originally published here.