Morris County, New Jersey, is the mark of the American middle class. Million-dollar homes are no surprise in a county where the median household income sits at about $91,000. However, a well-polished exterior hides the impact of the recession, as the number of people in Morris County receiving food stamps has almost tripled in the last five years. For Phyllis Tonnesen, a 27-year veteran of the Department of Human Services Office of Temporary assistance, the current wave is the worst she’s seen. Since the start of the recession, the food stamp caseload has increased by 240 percent.
“These people thought they had the American Dream,” Tonnesen told CNN. “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.”
CNN interviewed a family of five, who refused to give their names in fear of their children being teased at school. In 2008, “Mr. Smith” lost his six-figure salary job after two decades with a telecom company, and was forced to become a shoe salesman, making $10 an hour. When the family’s yearly income dropped from $130,000 to $15,000, Smith was forced to empty out his 401k to keep the family afloat. Statistics from the United Way price the cost of living for a family of four in Morris County at $60,000.
Unfortunately, the $250 of monthly food stamps the family gets could be cut off soon, as Mr. Smith has a new job selling janitorial supplies, raising his salary to around $15/hour. With Mrs. Smith working at a bakery part time, their yearly income is almost $18,000. “The help has dropped out so rather than getting ahead with a bit more money we are just treading water,” Mr. Smith said.
Trapped in the poor housing market, the Smiths were unable to sell their home, and stopped making mortgage payments in 2009. Foreclosure is imminent, but they hope they will be received by friends. The two oldest Smith children have already entered the work force, with their daughter working as a waitress, and their 18 year old son working at an auto repair shop. The Smith’s youngest son, 15, is hoping that the family will be spared their home.
“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.”