But the couple has plans — to turn around the slide in their income, to look for a house, to make sure that the girls continue all the way through school. "I don't want them to be struggling like us," Maldanado said.

Rojas is making other plans as well. Soon after arriving in the U.S., she took out a loan to finance her future at the Inglewood Park Cemetery. She now owns two plots at the cemetery's Mausoleum of the Golden West, and recently signed papers to pay $82.79 a month for the next five years to buy two more. By the time Rojas is finished, she will have spent more than $12,000 in total. But she's convinced it's worth it.

"Now if I die, I won't have to worry about my funeral," she said. "I won't leave my family with a financial burden."



The Source of the Statistics and How They Were Analyzed

The Times used the Panel Study of Income Dynamics for its analysis of family income volatility.

The panel study has followed a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 families and their offshoots for nearly 40 years and is the most comprehensive publicly available income and earnings database in the world. It is run by the University of Michigan and principally underwritten by the National Science Foundation. The families' identities are kept confidential.

The Times employed techniques for gauging income volatility that were developed by economists Robert A. Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University and Peter Gottschalk of Boston College. The Times also consulted with Yale University political scientist Jacob S. Hacker, who has conducted his own analysis of income volatility among households in the panel study and has published results linking it to economic risk.

The Times employed two Johns Hopkins graduate students, Xiaoguo Hu and Anubha Dhasmana, to help generate the data. Moffitt guided them and advised the newspaper.

The Times' analysis looked at five-year increments from 1970 to 2000 and examined the annual fluctuations in each family's income.

For example, for a family whose income rose by $5,000 over a five- year span, the paper examined the journey from the lower number to the higher: Did the change occur in steady $1,000 annual increases? Or did the family's income take a big jump in one year and plunge in another?

The Times' basic finding is that the fluctuations in annual income that individual families have experienced have grown larger over the last three decades.

Based on the panel-study sample, The Times estimated the annual income swings, up or down, for 68% of all U.S. families — those who did not have the most extreme fluctuations. As a result, the newspaper's conclusions don't rest on cases outside the mainstream: the movie star whose career dries up overnight, say, or the hourly worker who wins the lottery.

To zero in on working families, The Times focused on men and women 25 to 64 years old whose households had some income. To analyze the working poor, the paper ranked families by their average income during each five-year period. It then concentrated on those in the bottom one-fifth of income earners and especially those right at the 20th percentile.

The average annual income of panel-study families at the 20th percentile is close to the government's official poverty line for a family of four most years.

The analysis looked at pretax income of all family members from all sources, including workplace earnings; investments; public transfers such as jobless benefits, food stamps and cash welfare; and private transfers such as inheritances.

All amounts were adjusted for inflation, expressed in 2003 dollars.

For a more detailed description of The Times' analysis, visit latimes.com/newdeal.


Times researcher Janet Lundblad and staff writer Susana Enriquez contributed to this report.