George and Patricia Smyth’s dream was in their ice cream.

As the owners of a scoop shop in Brooklyn, they had a sweet tooth for making a living and for holding fundraising events to help the local community.  George ran the shop full-time while Patricia, a schoolteacher, helped in the evenings and on weekends.   Their two kids also spent many hours there.  The New York Times chronicled this family’s story in December.

After four years in business, ‘I Scream, You Scream’ had to close in 2011 due to escalating costs.  Just a month before, Patricia had lost her teaching job.  Even with the work she found substitute teaching and George’s new job at a pharmacy, they began experiencing difficulty making ends meet.  They fell behind on their mortgage payments and were soon on the brink of foreclosure.

The other shoe dropped when Hurricane Sandy hit, destroying thousands of dollars worth of musical equipment and toys stored in their basement as well as lots of sentimental photos.

Millions of Americans are just a layoff, a sickness, or a natural disaster away from being in a similar boat.  An August 2012 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found 85 percent of middle-class adults are having greater difficulty maintaining their standard of living now versus a decade ago. Three-quarters are unable to keep six months of emergency savings and over half have too little income to retire without experiencing a significant dip in their standard of living.

“If you aren’t devastated, if you aren’t totally annihilated or on the streets, people think you’re fine,” Patricia Smyth said. “It’s sad to say, people want to see you living in your car, on the streets, homeless, until they can feel for you.”

Without help, the Smyths may be on their way to even harder times.  Indeed, more than half of Americans are likely at some point in life to experience a year of poverty.  This startling finding comes from a study by Mark Rank in which he analyzed income data over the course of people’s entire lives.  By age 75, 45 percent had endured two years of poverty; over a third of them had experienced four years of poverty; and nearly 30 percent five or more years.

These findings shatter the popular image of struggling Americans as a statistically small group with values counter to the middle-class mainstream.

Investing in greater supports for the millions in our society in situations like the Smyth family, therefore, makes sense in the same way that it is prudent to buy auto insurance.  Nobody expects to get into a car accident but those who do are grateful they have the protection.