Almost four million Americans officially suffer from long-term unemployment. Unable to secure any meaningful legislation to help them, President Obama is reduced to begging corporations to pledge not to discriminate against them. What is long term unemployment like?
In tonight's State of the Union address, Obama will doubtless take a stab at describing the plight of those out of work for many months or years, as a prelude to the announcement that he "has secured pledges from a number of major U.S. employers to adopt hiring policies that discourage discrimination against the long-term unemployed." That's a paltry remedy to a crushing problem.
Throughout the course of our 40-volume Unemployment Stories series, we heard dozens of people speak of the financial, social, and psychological trauma that accompanies long term unemployment. We have quite a few stories that we didn't have a chance to run in that series. We'll share a few with you now. Here, some words from America's long term unemployed:
I'm an art director. I knew pursuing a career in art was going to be a rocky road when I was a kid. I worked hard, went to art school, paid my dues, found success. Even as a freelancer, I could always find work. It's typical in these pieces to mention the level of your previous success. I usually just tell folks that they've probably seen my work somewhere. Advertising is like that.
That seems like another world now. At this stage of my extended unemployment, I'll do anything. Digging ditches, washing dishes, I don't care so long as there's some sort of paycheck.
The worst part of extended unemployment is a sense that people blame you for it. As if somehow you're choosing this. Anything you may have achieved before is irrelevant. Now you're lazy, unmotivated, a drain on the system and the target of all sorts of condescending unsolicited advice. Gosh, thank you! I hadn't considered applying at Wal-Mart, the gas station, Jenny's diner. Wow! There are job fairs?!? OMG! I had NO idea!!! I've been too busy enjoying my life of luxurious relaxation. Go back to school! Brilliant! Not only will my bankruptcy make it tough but I can destroy my credit even more while becoming even more overqualified to be a stockboy!
After a while, it doesn't matter how well meaning the would be job counselors might be. All of it makes you feel less than human.
After a while, you drop out of everything. When friends and family decide to get together someplace you opt out. It's too humiliating when you can't afford a glass of soda. Besides, how many times can you listen to someone tell you there's a job fair going on at some hotel conference room?
Even positive activities become points of criticism. You ran five miles? How much did that pay? You watched the game? Bet you made a lot of money doing that!
It's nearly impossible to stay positive. Low level depression is a constant state. Regular rejection attacks your self image. You begin to doubt all the habits you built up to become successful, no matter how successful you were.
At any given moment you waver between giving up completely or absolutely losing your temper. Maintaining an even keel is exhausting.
You lose so much more than a job with extended unemployment. You feel like you lose the things that make us people. Not just money, a home, independence... you lose your value as a person.
When you finally come to the point where you realize you'll take a minimum wage position you know that such a job won't provide for any kind of life... you'll be lucky to pay for transportation to get to and from work.
You can't vent your frustration. If you do, you simply prove to others that you're not worthy, you're not trying, you don't want a job, you're a screw up, you've already decided you're defeated.
Defeat is a great word to sum up the experience. Talk politics, economics, strategies, psychology... doesn't matter when you get turned down for yet another job. Day after day, month after month, year after year, defeat. You lose.
How remarkable is it that people who deal with exactly that reality set their alarms every day? Find a way to get online, submit resumes day after day, put on a brave face and find a way to get through it all? Dig deep and smile when people mention that they saw on the news x or y company is hiring two hundred people?
Most of us are so far past any sort of reasonable breaking point even we can't tell you how we continue. Press any of us about it and we'll say 'what choice do we have?!?'
Reality kicks you in the teeth
I've read the unemployment stories and many of them reflect my own.Even though it may be repetitive to write these words I still feel the compulsion to write them down and share them with you.
In thinking about laying out the facts of my story, I do realize that a lot of it is my own fault.Some might say "no", but that's how it seems to me.I went to college and for the longest time I didn't know what I wanted to do.I had walked a very long and crooked road to try to find something that I could do with even a little competence and enjoyment.I started in the math and science area.I could barely get passed even the most remedial areas.Then I tried the technical college.I could barely hack it there.Finally, I found that in the English department was where I could do my best and so I went on to study both professional and creative writing.
I had thought that I might get into an entry level position where my skills might have been of some use.Sadly, that wasn't the case.I searched and searched and searched.The days turned to weeks.The months bled into two years.I couldn't even land jobs washing dishes, washing cars or cleaning toilets despite my willingness to do those jobs.
And there wasn't a lot of support for this.
One of my family members even said to me, "If things don't change in five years, you might as well kill yourself."
And during that time, I was living at home because of the fact that I had no income source to find any kind of home of my own.Then to make matters worse, my mother was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.And she passed away within a month.
She had no will or life insurance and so, her house (the home I was living in) went back to the bank along with her car.It was only by the purest good fortune that my eldest brother allowed me to live with him out in California.
I did try to remain optimistic about coming to California, thinking that this would be a new chapter in my life and that I would continue to soldier on in the face of my mother's passing.But, once again, reality kicks you in the teeth.I searched and searched and searched.Days turned to weeks and the weeks bled into months and still nothing.I've applied to be a dishwasher at Chili's, a night time stocker at Toys R Us and many others.Still nothing.Even people at the temp agencies and staffing centers said that they couldn't help me.That in itself almost seems like a sign to give up, doesn't it?
Already, I know that there are those out there who would tell me that this is my own fault because I had chosen a degree in an area that is pretty much useless.I'd be willing to concede that.On the other hand, when it comes to jobs listings at job sites and company sites constantly say that they want experience.But to get experience one must have a job.And so the vicious nonsensical merry-go-round continues to spin.
It's at times like this that I start to think of the writers and artists who've come before me:Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gough, Hunter S. Thompson, Spalding Gray and Richard Jeni and the question that I find myself asking is, "Did they have the right idea at the end of their lives?"
The Failed Writer
I'm about two weeks from running out of unemployment for good. I've been out of work for a little over a year, with a handful of vague odd jobs since. When I got laid off I lost my health insurance. I couldn't afford COBRA, but with a chronic disease and a mental illness coming to the boiling point I could not afford to be without healthcare. That led me to pack up my stuff and my cat and drive 3500 miles to Massachusetts, where I immediately became eligible for MassHealth, the state's healthcare system that Obamacare is modeled after. In Mass, my medication costs went from the thousands to $10 or free.
But for that spiffy healthcare I sacrificed a healthier job market, settling in a familiar college town where I had a built-in social support network of friends, instead of in a bigger city, like Boston. I moved here in June of last year, and a year later I'm still looking for long-term/permanent work that pays a living wage. Hell, I can't even get the jobs that pay minimum wage.
I've been turned down for job after job after job. I'm too qualified. If I disclose my chronic illness, I am mysteriously passed over for the position. If I don't disclose, I run the risk of being caught out having lied about my ability to do all aspects of the job. I also risk hurting myself by trying to do it anyway. I'm in my late 30s, in a college town full of young, cheap labor. I'm not a college grad...
I'm so tired. All the time. I'm just exhausted because I walk around feeling like I'm carrying every second of every day spent unemployed in a sack on my back. I'm always broke, always, my friends are constantly covering for me, bailing me out, giving me work so I can feel like I'm earning my money and I'm not a charity case. I'm sick of feeling like a drain on everyone. I'm tired of feeling left behind by people younger than me who have their shit together. My friends are having kids and getting married. I'm stagnant, stuck in a quasi-young adult phase that gets more ridiculous the older I get. I'm tired of feeling worthless, useless and un-employable.
About a month ago, I came the closest I've ever come to wanting to die. Were it not for the inconvenience of being loved by a family member and a pet, I likely would have done something about it. I am fortunate to have very kind, supportive friends, and a good therapist - paid for through Masshealth. These are the reasons I can't move.
My unemployment is about to expire, my last federal extension exhausted. The job I do for a local business is only a handful of hours a week and barely worth the gas to get there. I just moved into a place in March after having been homeless for months and I don't know if I can keep it. I don't have anywhere to go if I can't. But I don't know how I am going to pay the rent or keep the lights and phone on. I don't know how to feed myself, or the cat. I don't know how I am going to do anything right, ever again.
I don't know.
Let's offer our fellow Americans something more meaningful than a promise.
[You can read all of our "Unemployment Stories" here. Photo: AP]