Chris and Sharon Hatzis live in a small terraced house on an estate in Bicester, Oxfordshire. The neighbourhood is alive with babies in spanking new prams and 30-plus men in their weekend jeans holding DIY carrier bags and chatting across fences.

In contrast, everyone in the Hatzis household looks exhausted. Sharon, aged 23, a quiet and thoughtful woman, hardly stirs for the first hour that I am there. Her two children - Karl, four, and 10-month-old Marissa - also seem unnaturally subdued. Although their father, Chris Hatzis, 34, has just found a job as a project co-ordinator with an engineering firm after three years on the dole, the family does not seem to have adjusted to the fact that they might now begin to dig themselves out of the pit they fell into.

'I've been so terrified,' says Chris, 'that I'd never get out of it. I had been applying for jobs endlessly and was at my wits' end. I applied for all sorts of jobs, casual work, anything.'

Chris is a production engineer with aspirations and self-respect which have been tarnished but not eroded by the past few years. His father was a semi-skilled worker who worked hard to provide a decent life for his family, and, says Chris, 'to allow them to move up in the world. My parents were always going on about how hard work was central to success, that you had to be self-reliant, make something of yourself. Education was the great priority.

'I think they have had to learn the hard lesson that it doesn't always work. At first they found what was happening to us really difficult. But now they have become quite resigned to it.'

When he lost his job after his firm was taken over, Chris was earning pounds 13,000 and expecting to move up fast. At first they managed, but bit by bit their savings and optimism disappeared. He shows me a hundred neatly filled applications he had sent off. After endless rejections, he decided to do a short course to upgrade his qualifications, but could not get a grant because he did not meet the rigid criteria demanded by the Department of Employment. . He was eventually given the pounds 185 he needed by the Family Welfare Association.

How does he feel about it all? 'Very angry and confused. I keep asking myself what I should have done to avoid this. Not to be able to raise pounds 185, to be that poor, I felt terrible. To find myself at the bottom again in this way. Three years ago, I was climbing up the ladder.

'I am not saying that we are better than people who have been poor for a long time. This kind of thing makes you understand what they must go through - something I would never have done before. But in yourself it is harder to accept because you never expected it and you have lost control of your life.

'I couldn't get a job that paid nothing, because we would have lost the house and the protection being on the dole gives you. I am not the sort of person who wants to be dependent on anybody, it was a terrible feeling that I could not support my own family.'

Sharon slowly picks up the courage to join in. 'Two weeks after Marissa was born, Chris lost his job. Sometimes we had to manage with one loaf of bread a week. That and a sack of potatoes is all we had. Weeks with no meat, fresh vegetables, nothing. Sometimes we exchanged the milk tokens we got for Marissa for food. We kept at it because we are proud and we didn't want to ask anybody for things. Friends kept away, or they'd say: 'Come out, we'll buy.' That made us more upset than anything.

'People ask you: 'Why is he on the dole? There are plenty of jobs.' They don't know how easily you can fall. Everybody thinks you are nothing. The poor, it could be anybody tomorrow.'

In spite of the turn in their fortunes, Sharon still seems to fear that this is just a short respite: 'When this has happened to you, you can never relax.'

For the first time in both their families, there are now people who have become the long-term unemployed, including Sharon's father, who is finding it impossibly difficult to accept what is happening to him. 'Your thinking begins to change,' says Sharon. 'You can't believe in anything, even yourself any more. That is terrible.'

(Photograph omitted)