Bank of Mom and Dad Shuts Amid White-Collar Struggle


FAIRFIELD, Conn.—When Maurice Johnson was laid off a year ago from his six-figure salary as a managing director at GE Capital, it wasn’t his future he was worried about.

It was his children’s.

The family income of the Johnsons is a fifth of what it used to be. And the children are about to feel the pain. Mr. Johnson’s two oldest are attending his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, at an annual cost of $50,000 apiece. And his youngest daughter, 15 years old, recently began her own college search. Mr. Johnson isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to help her to go to college, or even to get the older kids to graduation.

Cutting Off the Kids

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After Maurice Johnson (left), with daughter Elsa (center) and wife Linda, was laid off from his job as a managing director at GE Capital, he worried about how he would provide for his children’s future.

Mr. Johnson, who watched his own father struggle as an engineer without a college degree, was determined to do better for his own children.

“We saved like crazy from the minute they were born,” he says. “Then, it all fell to pieces.”

Many families such as the Johnsons—upper-middle-class professionals—are suddenly downwardly mobile. For years, they used rising family wealth to help foot the bill for college, down payments for houses and start-up cash for children’s careers. But pay cuts, layoffs and the decadelong flatlining of the stock market mean many families can no longer help their children.

This comes as young adults could use a financial helping hand more than ever. The unemployment rate for workers ages 16 to 29 was 15.2% in March, the highest rate since 1948, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s almost a double whammy,” says Ann Huff Stevens, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis. “If a parent goes through a job loss, they’re going to contribute less. And there’s a direct effect because kids themselves are earning less, too. A recession like this might have some lasting effects for parents and kids.”

In general, highly trained and educated workers are faring better than those without degrees in this labor market. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 5%, compared with 9.7% overall. In general, the employment picture is improving, with employers adding 162,000 jobs in March, the biggest monthly gain in three years.

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Even so, the average length of unemployment, 31 weeks, is at its highest level since 1948. There were a total of 2.3 million unemployed college graduates in March 2010, 1.45 million more than in March 2007, with heavy layoffs in white-collar sectors such as finance.

In the long run, the drop in parental aid could make young adults a more financially resilient generation, like children of the Great Depression. But for now, economists worry that without parental cash, young adults may put off entering the housing market, settling into career paths and having families.

“Now, not only do parents no longer have the money to help their children out, but banks will no longer lend to home buyers without the income to support repayment,” says Cheryl Russell, a demographer and author of “Americans and Their Homes: Demographics of Homeownership.”

The rate of home ownership among people ages 25 to 29 fell to 37.7% last year, from a peak of 42% in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. Home ownership for those under 25 fell to 23.3% from 26% in 2005, the lowest rate for any age group.

The Juggle

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Indeed, the bank of Mom and Dad is closing at a time when young people are having trouble borrowing from traditional lenders. Some 22% of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 said they’ve been turned down for a mortgage, loan or credit card in the past year, according to a February survey from, a legal marketing and information site. That’s double the percentage of any other age group in its survey.

As a result, many young people are now moving home to save on rent. About 21% of young adults say they’ve either moved in with a friend or relative, or had a friend or relative move in with them because of the economy, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.

In past recessions, women would re-enter the work force to help prop up household income, says Katherine Newman, a Princeton University sociology professor. But now, more women are working and themselves experiencing layoffs. Before the 1990 recession, 57.4% of American women worked, and in the next two years, some 1.1 million more entered the work force. Today, it’s the reverse. On the eve of the latest downturn in 2007, 59.3% were working and 2.6 million more women were unemployed. Women’s overall participation rate in the work force has remained flat since then.

Many parents who were set to retire are now delaying it to compensate for battered retirement accounts, leaving even fewer openings for younger workers to fill. There are an additional 500,000 workers over the age of 65 in the work force now compared with 2007.

“We may have well given up on the idea that our kids will do better than us,” Prof. Newman says. “But the idea that they should do as well, that’s something we haven’t given up on yet.”

Before her December 2008 layoff from Bank of America Corp. as an executive recruiter, Diane Hayes bought a “dream house” for her family, which includes her three teenage daughters with disabilities, two with autism and one with Down syndrome. The 3,600-square-foot house in Orlando, Fla., had a pool in back that could be used for therapy and custom-designed rooms to accommodate five people into adulthood. “The pool was the only place we could all be together and enjoy ourselves,” Mrs. Hayes says.

Her husband continues working as a writer, but without her six-figure income, the family was forced to sell the home in November. The Hayes had a $650,000 mortgage and sold the house for $375,000. Their lender forgave the difference as part of the sale, Mrs. Hayes said. But the family still has loans outstanding for $50,000.

They’ve since moved to a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom house nearby that they are renting for $1,200 a month. All three girls share one bedroom with bunk beds. The house is in the same neighborhood, so the family can use the same supermarkets and schools, hoping to ease the anxiety many autistic children face when adjusting to new environments.

The family had to cut the four different specialized summer camps that each child attended, at a cost of $1,600 for all three children per week. And they’ve been forced to eat into a nest egg designed to support the girls as adults.

“With kids with disabilities, there’s no cheap way out,” Mrs. Hayes says. She adds: “Other people can send their kids to community college, have them get part-time jobs, and think ‘maybe our son or daughter will support us’…We can’t do that.”

Last month, Mrs. Hayes found some temporary work as a recruiter. The income is lower than her Bank of America salary, there are no benefits and her brother has helped pitch in with day care. She says she’s grateful for the opportunity, but knows it could be precarious. “We’re not going to spend on anything,” she says.

In other families, the gaps in financial support have become glaring between siblings. Ten years ago, when Patricia Bennett earned more than $100,000 a year selling risk-management software on Wall Street, she paid $30,000 cash for her now 28-year-old son’s freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta with little hassle.

After being laid off in April 2009, Ms. Bennett now makes $9.75 an hour as a part-time cashier at Williams-Sonoma, in addition to doing volunteer hospice care. In January, she received a foreclosure notice on her home in Monroe, N.Y. Her youngest son is a sophomore at Lafayette College and will have to drop out next year unless he obtains more scholarships and loans.

Last year, Lafayette increased financial aid by 8.5% and cut its operating budget by 5% to keep pace with the increase in financial-aid requests and prevent students from leaving for financial reasons “There’s concern about reality today and what’s ahead,” says Robert Massa, Lafayette’s vice president of communications.

Ms. Bennett’s husband, William, was unemployed as a salesman for two years before he started selling cars on commission in July of 2009.  Before they became eligible for health insurance with his new job, the family went without it for months at a time so that they could contribute around $1,000 for pocket money and bus tickets for their son to visit home.

The gap between their two sons’ experiences is particularly frustrating for her. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” Ms. Bennett says.

Many parents are less able to help their children after graduation as well. Angelica Hoyos, a 26-year-old living in Los Angeles, has put her photography and sculpture career on hold since her parents pulled the financial plug earlier this year after the family’s granite-countertop business suffered. Ms. Hoyos has moved in with her boyfriend, cut spending and earns about $1,000 a month doing free-lance design work and baby-sitting.

“My artistic career is put on the side because I have to make a living,” she says.

For Mr. Johnson, the former GE Capital executive, not being able to see his children through college is particularly painful. Both he and his wife attended Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. When he decided to earn his masters in finance there decades ago, he says he had little doubt about it being “a good value proposition.”

The Johnson children always had part-time jobs in high school. But in college, they struggled for months to find part-time and summer work over the past two years. Finally, one landed a seasonal job folding clothes at Old Navy. Last year, the Johnsons didn’t qualify for work study because the household income was too high. Since resubmitting their aid application, they have qualified. Their son got a work-study gig at a university office.

Johns Hopkins last year added $2 million in financial aid just to accommodate the surge of additional aid requests for its 5,000 undergrads. Some 61% of higher-education institutions reported an increase of 10% or more in financial-aid applications than the previous year, according to a September 2009 survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. More than a million more federal financial-aid applications were filed during the beginning of 2009 than in the beginning of 2008, with a 16.3% increase among dependent students.

“We had folks who never needed aid before and now they have one, two parents unemployed,” says Vincent Amoroso, the school’s director of student financial services. “And these are folks who used to make $100,000 or $200,000 a year who are coming to see us.”

Mr. Johnson made up to $550,000 a year, including bonuses, before losing his job in March 2009. The Johnsons had stashed $250,000 away for college.

If that money isn’t tapped sooner for household expenses, it might buy two years of schooling for each of his children, Mr. Johnson calculates.  Further expenses such as first homes and weddings are out of the question. “They’re going to have to elope,” he says.

In the summer of 2007, the Johnsons paid $1.5 million for their Fairfield home and took out a mortgage of $852,000. Mr. Johnson figures it could realistically sell for $800,000 today. Given the numbers, the family is trying to avoid moving and recently refinanced their house at a lower interest rate.

“It’s emasculating,” Mr. Johnson says. “I’m supposed to be providing for them, but I can’t.”

The children haven’t talked about transferring to less expensive colleges yet. “I’m going to take it all day by day,” says Kristian Johnson, 20, the oldest of the Johnson siblings. Now a sophomore, he says he’s prepared to take out loans to finish.

Margot Johnson, 18, says her father’s career experience has affected her goal as an economics major. “I want to study economics,” she says, “but not something in the corporate world.”

Mr. Johnson concedes that Elsa Johnson, the youngest, is “getting the raw end of the deal.” By the time the 15-year-old daughter starts looking at colleges, most of the savings set aside for school could be gone.

Already passionate about fashion and design, Elsa says she’ll opt for the least-expensive design school she can get into and is looking into paying for school herself. Until then, she’s cut back on shopping trips and food and coffee spending with friends. She no longer asks for weekly allowances. “My parents are already stressed out enough,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson continues to look for work and crunch numbers of the new household-budget reality.

“I know, I know—cry me a river and then build a bridge and get over it, right?” Mr. Johnson says. “Still, there was a set of expectations we established, consciously or not, and they are not being met any more.