Report on America's Middle Class (NBC News)

We're back with a special look, as promised tonight, at America's vast middle class. In these tough economic times, the American middle class isn't what it used to be. NBC's Chris Jansing has our report.

CHRIS JANSING reporting:

It's been 18 long months since Kathleen Bellow lost her sales job and her nearly-$50,000-a-year salary. Now she's looking for help at a Pasadena job center in a frustrating search for employment.

Ms. KATHLEEN BELLOW: It's a hard pill to swallow, in a sense, because I'm thinking, Do I have to start all over again somewhere else? Do I have to go flipping burgers somewhere?'

JANSING: Kathleen is far from alone. A joint congressional committee examining the effects of the economy on America's middle class heard only bleak assessments.

Senator BERNIE SANDERS (Independent, Vermont): The title of this hearing is the squeeze of the middle class. I don't think it's a squeeze, I think it's a collapse.

JANSING: Since 2000, middle-class families have seen incomes drops by nearly $1200 while life's necessities keep getting more expensive.

TEXT:

(down arrow) $1,175

JANSING: The average family now pays nearly $2200 more for gasoline each year; health insurance up $363; food bills, $220; and the average mortgage payment rose by more than $1700.

Mr. JARED BERNSTEIN (Economic Policy Institute): Prices are rising much more quickly than people's paychecks. That's the perfect storm facing middle class incomes right now.

JANSING: In the eye of the storm, foreclosures, 2.2 million nationwide last year, an estimated three million more this year. And here in California, foreclosure rates are up a devastating 261 percent. Struggling to pay bills, families are running up their credit cards an average of nearly $8500.

TEXT:

$8,467

Ms. ELIZABETH WARREN (Harvard Law School): They're laying down the credit cards because it's the only way to put food on the table.

JANSING: And, experts say, an unexpected expense--a medical emergency or, like Kathleen, a job loss--can send a hard working American into a financial freefall.

Ms. BELLOW: And it's easy just to--just get into that mindset of just feeling hopeless. It's very easy to go down that road.

JANSING: For the middle class, an increasingly tenuous hold on the American dream. Chris Jansing, NBC News, Los Angeles.