This is how fast it can happen:
One day Patrick Robbins was a sportswear buyer at Mark Shale 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. Soon his mother-in-law was bringing over toilet paper and paper towels.
"From middle class to poor," Pat Robbins summed it up. "Immediately."
Imagine a pile of blocks, each one representing an element of ordinary American life.
Slowly, carefully, stack them up. One block for the monthly mortgage payment. Another for the credit card bill.
Next, groceries. Kids' sports leagues, doctor's visit co-pays, utility bills -- pile them up in your mind until they rise toward the sky in a precisely calibrated tower.
It all balances, unless you are forced to top it off with one final element: The loss of a job.
That isn't a block; it's a brick.
And with that, it all comes tumbling down.
------Robbins, 41, has a quiet voice and square-jawed good looks fit for fashion retailing. He and his wife, Kimberly, 42, and their four children live in a nice house on a nice block in the nice suburb of Westmont.
Only there's nothing nice about what has happened to them, and is happening to many other middle-class families for whom a layoff spells disaster.
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 at a table in a meeting room at the Mark Shale store on North Michigan Avenue. On March 23, Scott Baskin, co-president of the Al Baskin Co., the family-owned operator of Mark Shale stores, delivered the bad news to Robbins and seven other buyers. The Al Baskin Co., its high-end business battered by the worst retail environment in decades, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company was dissolving its buying staff and, along with it, Robbins' 22-year career there. Under the terms of the bankruptcy, Mark Shale was not allowed to give severance payments.
Robbins made the requisite phone calls to say he had been laid off. He called his wife. He called his father, who was a Mark Shale employee for 48 years before he retired.
Then he spent the rest of the day at the North Michigan Avenue store packing his belongings and saying his goodbyes. He bore the company no ill will and was touched that Baskin, grandson of the company's founder, shook each buyer's hand and said he was sorry it had come to this.
But Robbins was scared.
His income was the engine that kept the family going. The $20,000 his wife earned working part time as a personal trainer paid for their four children's Catholic school tuition. All the other bills depended on his paycheck.
At home, he and his wife gathered their 13-year-old son and their daughters, ages 11, 10 and 6, and told them what had happened. Things were going to be different now, they said, though they weren't sure exactly how.
"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 very quiet.
It was the first time Pat Robbins' children had seen him cry.
He applied for unemployment, but the math became painfully clear. Unemployment would cover the mortgage. For everything else, they would have to use --
They had nothing to use.
"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 were carrying credit card debt. There was no extra money to lay aside for a rainy day. And now it was pouring.
They slashed their budget. They bought groceries at Aldi. They ate pasta. They pulled their children out of sports leagues. They negotiated with their credit card companies. They ended their 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, calling professional contacts, meeting with people, flying to Little Rock, Ark., for an interview at Dillard's, a department store company based there.
Danny works as a caddie. He recently gave his mother $20.
"Mom, you need this more than I do," he said.
------What does it feel like to lose your middle-class life?
Like the solid ground beneath you turned to water. Like you woke up in a world you find unrecognizable. Like you are sick.
"You feel like throwing up," Kim said. But the closest analogy, for her, is drowning.
"The uncertainty is the worst. It makes you feel like you're suffocating," she said. "The anger, the sadness -- you just get to the point where you can't breathe."
And who saw it coming, back when life was good?
"You're taking care of your kids, your house. You're in this bubble. And everything is fine in your little bubble," she said. "And then the bubble bursts."
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."
They were not too proud to ask for government help. They just didn't know how.
A friend told Kim to go to the Illinois Department of Human Services Web site and apply for a Link card and, because they couldn't afford COBRA payments, free health care.
The world of public aid was so foreign to the Robbinses that Kim couldn't remember the name of the health-care program for the poor.
"I always forget. Medicaid? Medicare?"
It is Medicaid, and she and her family went on it.
They were touched by the kindness of friends and family. A neighbor organized a pizza night for them, bringing over dinner and a bottle of wine. One of Kim's friends gave her a gift of a professional massage appointment, and handed her an envelope. There was $1,500 inside.
She was not offended, but grateful.
"We're beyond the point where we're offended," Kim said.
"We're humbled," her husband said.
------Last week, Pat Robbins was hired by Dillard's. 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; he got the new job in 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.
They are thrilled. Talking about it, Kim gave a sigh of relief that practically measured on the Richter scale.
When Pat starts his new job at the end of the month, he will be earning almost as much as he did at Mark Shale. Because the cost of living is lower in Arkansas, it will be as if he got a raise.
It will be a different life, one in which they plan to apply the lessons they have learned:
Credit cards are dangerous. Budgets are freeing. What you want is not the same as what you need. An emergency fund is crucial. The Robbinses are so determined to build one that they plan to buy a less expensive house so they can.
And there are no guarantees that they are out of the woods. If their house doesn't sell by August, when the family joins Pat in Little Rock, things could get ugly again fast.
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 ending up 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."
Now they know.