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Originally published May 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 20, 2009 at 8:40 AM

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One family's sudden fall from comfort to despair

The Robbinses are spinning through the recession at warp speed. They hurtled into financial straits. Now, just as quickly, they have begun to scramble out.

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — This is how fast it can happen:

One day Patrick Robbins was a sportswear buyer earning $110,000 a year. The next day he was laid off, with no severance.

Within a week, the family was on Medicaid and had applied for food stamps. His mother-in-law soon was bringing over toilet paper and paper towels.

"From middle-class to poor," Pat Robbins said. "Immediately."

Robbins, 41, his wife, Kimberly, 42, and their four children live in a nice house on a nice block in a nice Chicago suburb.

Only there's nothing nice about what has happened to them, and is happening to many other middle-class families.

The Robbinses are spinning through the recession at warp speed. They hurtled into financial straits. Now, just as quickly, they have begun to scramble out. They are emerging shaken at life's unpredictability and devoted to a budget, but also convinced of their strength and determined to change the way they live.

Their journey began March 23 in a meeting room at a Mark Shale department store in Chicago. Scott Baskin, co-president of Al Baskin Co., the family-owned operator of Mark Shale stores, delivered the bad news to Robbins and seven other buyers. The company, its high-end business battered by the worst retail environment in decades, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Under terms of the bankruptcy, Mark Shale was not allowed to give severance payments.

Robbins, a 22-year veteran, bore no ill will and was touched that Baskin, grandson of the company's founder, shook each buyer's hand and said he was sorry.

But Robbins was scared.

The $20,000 his wife earned working part time as a personal trainer paid for their children's Catholic school tuition. The other bills depended on his paycheck.

He and his wife gathered their 13-year-old son and their daughters, ages 11, 10 and 6. Things would be different, they said, though they weren't sure how.

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"We told them we might move. They might go to a different school," Kim Robbins recalled. "The only certain thing is that we're going to stay together."

It was the first time Pat Robbins' children had seen him cry.

He applied for unemployment, but the math was painfully clear. Unemployment would cover the mortgage, but nothing else.

"That three-month emergency fund — we should have done it, but we didn't," Kim said.

It was hard enough to keep up with living expenses, Pat said. Plus, they had credit-card debt. There was no extra money to lay aside for a rainy day. Now it was pouring.

They slashed their budget. They ate pasta. They pulled their children out of sports leagues. They negotiated with credit-card companies. They ended regular contributions to their church. They stopped 13-year-old Danny's guitar lessons.

Pat kept his membership at an inexpensive fitness club. If he missed working out one day, he spent that night lying awake worrying.

He threw himself into job hunting, even flying to Little Rock, Ark., for an interview at Dillard's, a department-store chain based there.

Danny works as a caddie. He recently pitched in $20. "Mom, you need this more than I do," he said.

What does it feel like to lose your middle-class life?

"You feel like throwing up," Kim said. "The uncertainty is the worst. It makes you feel like you're suffocating. The anger, the sadness — you just get to the point where you can't breathe."

Her composure burst, and she cried.

"It's all gone," she said. "Everything you had is all gone. ... Everything you were connected to — it's gone."

Dillard's hired Pat Robbins. As a brand manager for its private-label men's sportswear line, he will work with designers and factories on product development. His rescue came as quickly as his fall — six weeks. In this economy, it was a blink of an eye.

The family will have to relocate to Little Rock. Pat and Kim didn't hesitate.

The experience has strengthened her faith, Kim said: "I prayed a lot more than I ever did in my life."

It was a trip to an unfamiliar world of uncertainty and fear, a place increasingly crowded with people who never imagined themselves there. And it can only truly be seen from the inside.

"You don't feel the effect of something that's happening to someone else," Kim said. "If someone breaks a leg, you can sympathize, but you don't know how it feels until it happens to you."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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