Struggling back to the good life

Md. has a relatively low jobless rate, but that doesn't mean much to those who've lost ground

From your house to the white house

July 20, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

First in a series of occasional articles

Erin Triplett's life shifted in a flash. Within months, the mortgage loan officer earning six figures in commissions was out of work, scrambling to launch a small business from an Anne Arundel County townhouse shared with roommates.

Change came fast, too, for Bob Harris. The Washington County plant that employed him for nearly 35 years halted production in March, leaving him jobless for the first time since high school. A lean year lies ahead before he moves toward his vision of making a living laying bricks and planting shrubs.

Triplett and Harris come from different generations, different corners of Maryland and different professional backgrounds. But they grapple with the same challenges this election year: how to make ends meet and reconstruct their futures as economic upheaval roils around them.

Voters tell pollsters that the economy and energy prices are prime concerns as they decide whom to back in arguably the most compelling presidential contest in years.

Harris and Triplett are weighing what the candidates say and see a glimmer of help in their proposals. They would enjoy a break from gas taxes, as Republican John McCain proposes. They think President Bush's tax cuts for high-income earners should be reversed, as Democrat Barack Obama suggests.

But neither is counting on Washington to boost their bank accounts. They're skeptical that a politician can quickly fulfill pledges that would improve their lives. So as they regroup from losing stable careers, they are trying to control their own finances by changing driving habits and skipping restaurant meals.

For now, Maryland has avoided the brunt of the economic downturn and the full-scale pitch of the general election campaign.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic state that is expected to land squarely in the Obama column in November, candidates and their television ads are rare. The campaigns are targeting their economic messages in battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri.

With a relatively wealthy state economy boosted by government spending, Maryland's 4 percent unemployment rate lies well below the national average of 5.5. The state is poised for growth regardless of who gets elected, as the military base realignment process brings thousands of well-paying jobs.

But unemployment is on the rise, swelling nearly a half-percentage point in the most recent accounting, and Triplett and Harris toiled in two of the worst-performing sectors - manufacturing and finance.

Even though Maryland "is not immune" to the credit crisis and rising food and energy costs, "we are weathering the storm better than most states, and that is because we have such a diverse economy," said state labor secretary Thomas E. Perez.

For those who have lost jobs, seen savings plunge or face losing their houses, such diversity provides "little solace," Perez acknowledges.

On her own

For Triplett, 27, the value of money and hard work was instilled after her freshman year at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her parents announced their divorce. Neither would pay for tuition, their finances ensnared in legal proceedings.

Without warning, the effervescent drama standout from Columbia's Hammond High School was on her own.

A roommate helped her navigate the financial aid process. She turned a summer job into year-round employment, telling managers at Romano's Macaroni Grill to keep her on the waitress schedule once the fall semester began.

"I paid my way," she said. "It built my character."

After graduation, a friend recommended the mortgage business. She "just showed up one day" in 2003 at the offices of Castle Point Mortgage in Elkridge and was hired on the spot.

Within four months, she rose from processing documents to selling, becoming the company's top producer.

Times were heady, with a boom-town mentality permeating the office cubicles. She learned to project maturity and confidence over the telephone by talking louder. She collected $241,000 during her first full year in sales. She wouldn't reach that figure again, but her commission-based income remained in six figures.

Her husband, Justin, took an administrative job in the office, earning only a fraction of what she made. Still, the couple had enough money for a $600,000 four-bedroom house in Hanover (monthly payment: $4,000), and a Porsche for Justin - later upgraded to a Maserati (monthly payment: $800). The couple vacationed in Miami and still saved plenty.

But rumblings were ominous. Every day, Triplett dealt with clients seeking to pay down $50,000 or more in credit card debt by refinancing to adjustable rate mortgages. Loans that didn't seem to make sense gained rapid approval, she said, because "there was a lot of pressure to meet goals."

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