Posted on Tuesday, January 4, 2011
FORT PIERCE, Fla. — For the three generations of the Maggi family crowded into a recession-beaten three-bedroom ranch house here, the tension from living on top of one another for the last 10 months sometimes erupts at unexpected moments.
A nudge from Kathy Maggi for her 26-year-old daughter, Holly, to clean her room sparks a blow-up; an offhand comment by Jim Maggi about the way bills come in “month after month” to his daughter’s fiancé, James Wilson, causes days of smoldering; a bite of a chocolate bar from Grandma to 21-month-old Madison leads to frustrated chatter behind closed doors about “Nana” and “Pawpaw” spoiling her.
In February, after being evicted from their Gainesville apartment, Holly, James, Madison and their good-natured pit bull, Caley, moved into a cramped bedroom in the house where Holly grew up. Neither of Madison’s parents had been able to find work for more than a year.
Of the myriad ways the Great Recession has altered the country’s social fabric, the surge in households like the Maggis’, where relatives and friends have moved in together as a last resort, is one of the most concrete, yet underexplored, demographic shifts.
Census Bureau data released in September showed that the number of multifamily households jumped 11.7 percent from 2008 to 2010, reaching 15.5 million, or 13.2 percent of all households. It is the highest proportion since at least 1968, accounting for 54 million people.
Even that figure, however, is undoubtedly an undercount of the phenomenon social service providers call “doubling up,” which has ballooned in the recession and anemic recovery. The census’ multifamily household figures, for example, do not include such situations as when a single brother and a single sister move in together, or when a childless adult goes to live with his or her parents.
For many, the arrangements represent their last best option, the only way to stave off entering a homeless shelter or sleeping in their cars. In fact, nearly half of the people in shelters in 2009 who had not previously been homeless had been staying with family members or friends, according to a recent report, making clear that the arrangements are frequently a final way station on the way to homelessness.
A New York Times analysis of census “microdata,” prepared by the University of Minnesota’s state population center, found that the average income of multifamily households in the records fell by more than 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, twice as much as households over all, suggesting that many who are living in such arrangements are under financial siege.
Holly’s parents had been enduring their own financial struggles. Mr. Maggi, 58, lost his job as a high-end furniture maker in early 2009. Complicating matters, he and his wife had allowed Holly’s older sister, her husband and their two children to move in with them after they lost their home to foreclosure in 2008. They finally scraped together the money to move out just a week before Holly arrived with her family.
“I was just thinking, ‘Is it ever going to end?’ ” Mr. Maggi said. “I thought I was done raising my kids.”
Nevertheless, the Maggis said there was never any question about their taking in Holly and her young family.
“She didn’t have any other options,” said Kathy Maggi, 53, who has not worked for several years because of health problems. “It was here or on the streets.”
Back in Gainesville, Holly Maggi had worked as a manager at a self-storage facility before being laid off in 2007. She eventually took a job at a Häagen-Dazs, only to lose that as well. Mr. Wilson’s job as a flooring contractor sustained them, until that work also dried up in early 2009.
As their money dwindled, Ms. Maggi and Mr. Wilson looked into shelters but discovered they would not be able to stay together as a family. It took Ms. Maggi a week to muster up the courage to ask her parents.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” said Ms. Maggi, who has lived on her own since she was 18, working for most of that time and putting herself through community college.
The young couple, however, have come to regret their decision, even as they concede they had no other choice.
“I liked her family when we weren’t here,” said Mr. Wilson, who has struggled to mesh his more reserved personality with the garrulousness of Ms. Maggi’s family. “Now that we’re here, I don’t like them. I feel bad about it. I don’t think it’s their problem, or something that can be helped. It is what it is.”
The stresses can be as trifling as having to worry when getting up at night to use the toilet, which Mr. Wilson said he fretted about all the time because the elder Maggis’ bedroom is next to the bathroom. Or they can be more serious, like how Mr. Wilson and Ms. Maggi feel their parental decisions are being constantly undermined by her parents.
Several months ago, Holly Maggi finally landed a part-time job, paying minimum wage, as a cashier at Harvest Food & Outreach Center here, which offers discounted groceries, classes and other services to the needy. (The center’s client base has grown tenfold this year in St. Lucie County, where the unemployment rate was 15.2 percent in November.)
With Ms. Maggi at work, Mr. Wilson, 26, has been left to fend for himself at home with their daughter and Ms. Maggi’s parents. Over time, Kathy Maggi’s regular chirping about how to deal with Madison and her sometimes-differing approach — she prefers, for example, not to let her granddaughter cry, even though Mr. Wilson and Holly Maggi sometimes think she needs to — has rankled Mr. Wilson. “I don’t think she feels Madison is safe when she’s with me,” he said.
After Holly comes home from work, the couple spend most of their time in their bedroom, with Madison dashing in and out. Most of their possessions, including a 75-gallon fish tank with two giant South American cichlids and a South American catfish, occupy a second bedroom. Even though three-quarters of the space in their room is taken up by a king-size mattress, it has become their refuge. “This is the only place we feel we have that’s really ours,” Holly Maggi said.
The family’s time together has not been without its joys. It has enabled Madison’s grandparents to witness her first steps and first words, her transformation from infant to toddler. But the financial burdens shadow everything.
The sharing of expenses is a touchy subject. Holly’s food stamps cover groceries, but she and Mr. Wilson only occasionally pitch in on other bills because they have been focused on paying off creditors, as well as friends and relatives who have lent them money. Her parents have dropped hints but hold back. “That’s her money,” Kathy Maggi said. “I can’t say, ‘Holly, give me your paycheck for the bills.’ I can’t do that.”
The young couple’s relationship has suffered. Arguments are more frequent. Their sex life, they say, is basically nonexistent. Every night, with her parents in the next room, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Maggi discuss in hushed tones how and when they might be able to move out. Their hopes were buoyed recently when she was promoted and got a small raise.
The new dilemma, however, is that Jim Maggi’s unemployment benefits are scheduled to run out soon, which would leave the elder Maggis with no income and their savings exhausted. Mr. Maggi declared recently they needed to have a family meeting.
The predicament has left Holly Maggi feeling torn. She wants to leave, maybe even needs to, but she also does not want to abandon her parents. Soon, she will have to make a decision.
By MICHAEL LUO NYT