Unemployed and on the Verge of Losing Everything: "I Don't Know How I'll Make It"
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Having struggled to stay up to date on her monthly expenses--with help from friends and taking loans and credit card advances--this coming month, for the first time, Luz will be unable to pay for her health insurance. Unless she can get a job in the next couple of months, her home may be foreclosed and she'll lose her car, which she needs to work. "Losing my home is my biggest fear,” Luz says. "I had hoped, at this point in my life, never have to move again.”
Luz Guerra is a striking woman with thick black and gray hair, golden skin, and high cheekbones. She has always made her own way; raising her son by herself and directing a large non-profit organization. Born into a working-class in New York by a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, the oldest of four children, she is used to taking care of herself. After dropping out of school in eighth grade, Luz went on to get her GED, and became the first person in her family to graduate from college. Now she finds herself having to ask for help from friends and family just to survive.
When I last talked to Luz, she'd just gotten the letter that she'd exhausted all her unemployment benefits. While the recently passed federal stimulus package included an additional extension of unemployment benefits for all states, Texas Governor Rick Perry refused over $550 million dollars for Texas' unemployment trust fund because he wanted to "resist further government intrusion.” These are the funds that would have extended unemployment for Luz and others like her who have been actively looking for work for over nine months.
Luz has generally had a positive outlook on life. With each job application, she's told herself that this is the one that will turn things around. "I gather up my will and write cover letter after cover letter. I have applied in the nonprofit sector, in retail, in service work-- anything that might result in a job. I have traveled to New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin for interviews. I hate to say that keeping positive is getting harder and harder, yet I don't want to lose hope.”
Her chances aren't good. Luz is in the age group that is hardest hit during a recession. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers age 45 and older form a disproportionate share of the hard-luck recession category, the long-term unemployed. The national unemployment rate in March of 2009 for workers ages 45 and over was 6.4 percent, the highest since at least 1948, when monthly unemployment tracking began.
Like many other people, Luz has begun selling off anything she has of value to pay her bills. So far that includes a stereo system, a sound canceling head set, a pair of cowgirl boots, an enamel stove top roaster, some books and cd's, and some jewelry.
For Luz, this is not a new experience, but one she hoped was far behind her. "When I was a little girl we had a bi-weekly excursion to the pawn shop -- which in those days were mom and pop businesses,” she says. "We'd pawn our television for $25 to tide us over until the welfare check arrived. A week later, check in hand, my mom, my sister and i would march over to the pawn shop to retrieve our television, complete with coat hangar antenna, and go eat dinner at the cheap polish restaurant for a $1.00 bowl of stew. Today my television is too outdated to sell. Nobody wants a TV if it is not a flat screen. I am collecting up my last little pieces of gold and silver to see what i might get. Thank goodness for Craigslist. All through my neighborhood there are yard sales, where my neighbors are trying to sell rickety bookshelves and rubbermaid tumblers, old tools and children's toys.”