The middle class is worried. Four years of recession and sluggish recovery, after decades of rising income inequality, have eroded its wealth and its optimism.
That anxiety is helping to shape the national debate in this election season, and the mood of Long Islanders who consider themselves part of the middle class.
Speak with one after another -- outside a Ronkonkoma supermarket or on a leafy residential street in Malverne, at strip malls in Levittown or in downtown Huntington -- and the stories are startlingly similar.
Incomes that barely stretch far enough. Retirements postponed. Grown children living at home, unable to enter chosen professions. Salary cuts, and lost jobs. Grandparents helping out their children's families though also worried about their own financial security. Breadwinners working more than one job to make ends meet.
"I work with the school district, my husband is working three jobs: He's a New York City firefighter, he drives a truck and he does home improvement, and I never see him," said Carol Scanlan, 48, of Holbrook.
"He never sees the kids" -- a 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son -- "and we're barely getting by. We can't sit down, the four of us, to dinner together."
Recent studies show how hard-pressed the middle class is.
An August Pew Research Center report labels the decade since 2000 "Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier: The Lost Decade of the Middle Class." Nationally, the incomes and wealth of the middle class dropped, their numbers shrank and their moods darkened.
Just 43 percent believed their children's standard of living would surpass their own, down from 51 percent four years ago. Twenty-six percent thought it would be worse, compared with 19 percent four years ago.
Strains on the middle class long predate the recession: income inequality has risen sharply since the late 1970s, with most gains concentrated in the top 1 percent of households, said professor Jacob Hacker, director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale. Financial insecurity rose as workplace pension and health benefits eroded.
Locally, U.S. Census Bureau numbers (adjusted to 2011 dollars) showed significant drops from five years ago. In Nassau, median household income in 2011 was $91,414, compared with $97,438 in 2007. The Suffolk median was $84,106 in 2011; $90,298 in 2007.
'I'm uneasy over it'
Some middle-class Long Islanders say it's tough just to stay even.
Jackson Michel, 41, of Elmont, is an electrical engineer married to a nurse with three children. Their household income is about $125,000.
"We don't feel comfortable," he said. There is a mortgage, a baby-sitter, car payments, insurance and student loans. Unexpected expenses go on a credit card. "I'm uneasy over it. I'm OK but I cannot save. I'm happy but I want it to be better."
Even those who are in the higher end of the middle class are feeling pinched.
Caesar Guzman, 65, of Ronkonkoma, said he is a construction supervisor earning more than $160,000. He didn't look like a worried man, sturdy and smiling as he paused recently in a supermarket parking lot. But his words tell a different story.
"We used to consider ourselves middle class, and we're close to not being middle class," he said. "Money goes a lot less far . . . I used to have a very comfortable life, and now it's not so comfortable."
It didn't help that his wife quit her job last year, reducing the family income by about $40,000. They eat out less, buy less and worry about the price of things more, he said.
They live in an apartment in their married daughter's home to help her with the mortgage. They no longer talk of retiring this year. "I could not retire the way I'd like to retire," he said.
Nancy Albanese, 46 of Manhasset, wife of an attorney, was driving her three kids on a recent afternoon in her 3-year-old Toyota Sienna minivan.
"I know we're upper-middle class, but it doesn't always feel like it," she said. "I think there's a general gloom and uncertainty about the future, especially us with young kids."
Concern for children is matched by the concerns of those facing retirement on high-cost, high-tax Long Island. Gail Turner, 56, of Holtsville, whose husband loads plate glass onto trucks, wondered how much longer he will be able to work.
"After he retires, will we be able to afford the taxes? The cost of living on Long Island is insane," she said.
In Elmont, Gina Burnett, 51, a married mother of twin girls who are college seniors, is networking to replace the job she lost in June when her company's IT project management department was cut.
"I try to be optimistic," she said. Like Turner, she fears Long Island's high taxes could make retirement difficult. "That doesn't make me feel optimistic."
As the presidential election nears, both candidates are campaigning as the champion of the middle class. Long Islanders appear divided on which one, if either, has the answers.
Mitt Romney supporters count on the Republican's business experience to boost the economy. President Barack Obama's backers are willing to give the Democrat more time amid signs of slow economic improvement.
Salvatore Amendolia, 67, of Nesconset, editor of a fishing magazine, said a decade of rising living costs and a decline in home values and investment returns have made life harder.
Eugene Diakun, 57, a jewelry manufacturer from Franklin Square, said the country needed "a professional in office with business experience."
On the other side, Owen Magee, 70, of Hicksville, a Levittown fire inspector, believes "that Obama is for the middle class . . . they [Republicans] left him a mess and blame him for not cleaning it up fast enough and now want to come back," he said, quoting from former President Bill Clinton's Democratic convention speech.
Joseph Mauro, a 59-year-old retired New York City sanitation worker from Wantagh, wasn't convinced either candidate could make a huge difference, but favors Obama.
"He started programs; let him go another four years and see how he does," Mauro said.
Samantha Rampanelli, 47, of Selden, whose MBA degree isn't bringing her the salary and position she had hoped for, said: "I don't have faith in any of the candidates. I'll vote, but they can't do anything if the Congress doesn't agree."
Concern for next generation
Optimism is hard fought in an economy in which young people struggle to get established.
Annette Uvena, 33, of Huntington Station, an academic adviser at Adelphi University, said she and her husband, a city fireman, want a good life for their two young daughters.
"We're young, we're trying to make it work -- we grew up here so we're going to make it work," she said. "I'm hoping to be able to give them the same life as my parents gave me."
Al and Diane Corrado walked their dog one recent evening near their home in Malverne. Their driveway is crowded, with four cars -- theirs and those of two of their three children, college graduates unable to find work in their professions and living at home. Their youngest is still in college.
Al Corrado, 54, is a pharmacist and a partner in a drugstore and home health care company.
"We're raising productivity, we work more hours . . . I'd say we're working harder to stay status quo," he said.
"Five years ago, we said we'd retire in five years," said his wife, 55, "and now we're saying another five years. "
Daughter Nicole, 26, took loans to finance her master's in special education, but can only find work as a part-time teaching assistant. Their son Michael, 24, with a degree in geophysics, is looking for work.
"Early on, I worked a 60-hour week, we saved everything, paid our bills, did the right thing," Al said. "We really thought we had the American dream. Our kids' generation, this will be the first generation that doesn't exceed their parents."
They seesaw between long-term optimism and doubt. "I've never seen it this bad," Diane said. Al takes hope from history. "Our parents thought the Depression was the worst thing they experienced, and they saw phenomenal prosperity in their lifetime."
"I'm just hoping that happens again," Diane said. "I don't know. I hope so."