Unemployed and on the Verge of Losing Everything: "I Don't Know How I'll Make It"

It's summer and finally warm without being too hot. U.S. troops have withdrawn from Iraq. The kids are sleeping. It's the perfect time to just relax and enjoy the sunny weekends. Unless, of course, one is a part of the 50 percent of working Americans who said they are too "stressed" about losing their jobs to relax. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just released their report that 467,000 people lost their jobs in June. Those jobs came from every major industry sector, with the largest declines occurring in "manufacturing, professional and business services, and construction.”

The closer one looks at the numbers, the worse they look. In June 2007, the official U.S. unemployment rate was 4.5%. The just-released official unemployment rate for June 2009, is 9.5%, for blacks it's 14.7 percent, for Hispanics, 12.2 percent. When that number is adjusted to include those who have given up looking for work and the underemployed -- those people who can only find a part-time job and other "marginally-attached" workers, the actual unemployment rate is 16.5%, pretty high numbers for a country that has spent an additional $14.5 billion (of the $787 billion dedicated since Obama's election) to putting people "back to work.” Additionally, the amount of people out of work for over four months has grown significantly. People who are being laid off are being laid off permanently, not temporarily "let go” until the situation improves.

And yet it seems required business news orthodoxy to say that if the recession hasn't ended already, it's about to. "The economy is near the end of its contraction,” the economists reassures us. The economy has got to turn around soon, MSN Money writes. It's just "got to.” It's faith-based economics. The Economic Cycle Research Institute, a New York-based independent forecasting group, predicts that the U.S. recession will end sometime during this summer. And on June 20th, just two weeks before the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, CNN posted an article asking if the recession isn't already over. Did it end this spring? They want to know. If it did, someone forgot to tell the 14.7 unemployed Americans. This is seeming more and more like a "jobless recovery” -- one in which the stock markets and the large corporations "recover” but people don't.

In response, AlterNet is profiling unemployed Americans from across the country, all who have been out of work for over six months. Their experiences of unemployment are as varied as the jobs they left, from non-profit consulting and food service to teaching and high finance, but they raise similar hard questions about how dependent we are on an unstable economy, who is and isn't disposable, and who catches us when we fall.

When Luz Guerra had to leave her last job because she needed to care for her ailing mother, she always assumed she could find other work. After all, she'd been supporting herself since she was 16 and had over 30 years experience as an organizer and adult educator. She has designed curriculum and conducted trainings on U.S.-Central America issues, multicultural awareness, and popular economics for women. Luz wrote a report on technical assistance and people of color organizations, and as a consultant provided technical assistance and capacity building for a wide range of organizations.

Now, at 52, Luz finds herself out of work and unable to find any job that will cover her expenses. When her mother died in 2008, she applied for every nonprofit job that she was qualified for. But there very few openings and some months no openings at all. So Luz began to apply for office manager jobs, receptionist jobs, sales clerk jobs anything that would help her pay the mortgage on her small house she'd bought several years ago. To keep going, Luz started working cleaning a couple of times a week -- for $60 a week. But it was difficult, especially because she has chronic back pain, and the pay barely covers her food expenses. She has picked up a temporary part time nonprofit consulting job but it ends in a couple of months. "The competition for any even underpaid job is fierce right now in Austin,” Luz says. The official unemployment in Austin, Texas, where Luz lives, is 6.5 percent. That's for people who have been out of work for three months or longer. Luz has now been unemployed for over a year.

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.”

Luz has also tried turning to her credit union, where she's been a member for 24 years, for help. "My credit union's web page announced: ‘Having trouble making loan payments? Call us, we'll come up with a solution to meet your needs.'” She called, and they said they had nothing to help her. She is still in negotiations with them over car payments, hoping they won't take her car. She also tried seeing if there was any stimulus money available for people like her, who were having trouble making their mortgage payments. The bank told her that they couldn't modify the terms of the loan.

Luz runs her hands through her wavy hair. "I grew up poor,” she says. "I know how to live on rice and beans and pasta. When i was a kid, and we had a "cuenta" at the local bodega which we could pay off when the welfare check came, I vowed I would never live in debt. I hated crossing the street to buy a quart of milk on credit. I hated wearing only second hand clothing and not having a winter coat, having our electricity cut off and doing homework in the hallway, and moving to a new apartment in the middle of the night as we still owed money on the old one. I think about this now as I have sunk into debt a hundred times over.”

Perhaps the hardest part is that, on top of all this, Luz's back has started to hurt so much that she has to get injections to cauterize the nerves in her lower back just so that she can be mobile. For the last two months, friends and family stepped in and paid her health insurance premiums. But it looks like this next month she will lose her health insurance, which means she will no longer be able to afford her back treatments and medication. She also recently had two teeth break and a bridge come off. She put the $4,000 for an implant for one of the teeth on her almost maxed out credit card. Because the other tooth already has a root canal she can wait for that implant. "I just have to give up my vanity about having teeth missing when I smile.” Luz says, "I live in fear of losing my insurance and then having any future insurance refuse to cover my "pre-existing conditions.”

For now, Luz is surviving on help from friends, the housecleaning work, and credit cards, which she calls "middle class welfare.” But her credit card payments are spiralling, and while she follows the news about possible credit card reform, so far there is nothing that helps her and the interest rate on her balance has risen to 22 percent because of a few late payments. She has stopped being able to make her payments.

Luz has seen enough other people struggling to have some perspective. She says she spends part of each day reflecting "how lucky I am that my house hasn't been foreclosed on yet, that I have electricity and a little piece of land that belongs to the bank but that, so far, I still get to live on. I still have a car I can drive to job interviews. " In Austin alone, there are waiting lists of over 100 for women and children to get into shelters.

The day before we talked, Luz had started the morning with fifty dollars to last her for the next few weeks until payday. Then her son, in college in Oregon, called with an urgent need for her to wire transfer $30 so he could get his books for school and not to overdraw his account. She gave him $30.00. Then a family knocked on her door and the guy asked if he could mow her lawn for $20. They'd lost their house and were now living in their car. Luz explained that she now had $20 to live on till pay day. The family offered to do it for $10. So Luz split her lunch of fruit and cheese with them and gave them half her last twenty. Now she has ten. "I don't have regrets,” she says. "I don't have enough to live on, I'm not where that family is. That could so easily be me.”

These are the kind of things that makes Luz wish she could still call her mother. "I forget that she is not just a phone call away. I can't drop in on her and have tea and plan her garden.”

Luz has to end our conversation to prepare to go to another job interview. She goes to the bathroom and when she comes out her eyes are clear. She has wet her hair and smoothed it back and keeps her mouth closed to hide the broken teeth that she has not yet been able to raise the money to get fixed. I remember what she told me near the end of our talk, "I am afraid. I've used up all my resources and I don't know how I will make it if I don't get a job this month.” You wouldn't know her fear by looking at her now. She looks strong, composed, and capable. "Wish me luck,” she says and she heads out. But what Luz Guerra needs now is not luck, but a safety net, a society that will take care of its members who have given all they can and who now, without help, will fall.


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