August 2, 2010
99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation
By MICHAEL LUO
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town.
Ms. Jarrin, 49, wound up at a motel here, putting down $260 she had managed to scrape together from friends and from selling her living room set, enough for a weeklong stay. It was essentially all the money she had left after her unemployment benefits expired in March. Now she is facing a previously unimaginable situation for a woman who, not that long ago, had a corporate job near New York City and was enrolled in a graduate business school, whose sticker is still emblazoned on her back windshield.
“Barring a miracle, I’m going to be in my car,” she said.
Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves “99ers,” because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.
For them, the resolution recently of the lengthy Senate impasse over extending jobless benefits was no balm. The measure renewed two federal programs that extended jobless benefits in this recession beyond the traditional 26 weeks to anywhere from 60 to 99 weeks, depending on the state’s unemployment rate. But many jobless have now exceeded those limits. They are adjusting to a new, harsh reality with no income.
In June, with long-term unemployment at record levels, about 1.4 million people were out of work for 99 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not all of them received unemployment benefits, but for many of those who did, the modest payments were a lifeline that enabled them to maintain at least a veneer of normalcy, keeping a roof over their heads, putting gas in their cars, paying electric and phone bills.
Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent.
Ms. Jarrin said she wept as she drove away from her old life last month, wondering if she would ever be able to reclaim it.
“At one point, I thought, you know, what if I turned the wheel in my car and wrecked my car?” she said.
Nevertheless, the political appetite to help people like Ms. Jarrin appears limited. Over the last few months, 99ers have tried to organize to press Congress to provide an additional tier of unemployment insurance. But the political potency of fears about the skyrocketing deficit has drowned them out. The notion that unemployment benefits discourage recipients from finding work has also crept into Republican arguments against extensions. As a result, the plight of 99ers was notably absent from the recent debate in the Senate.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, is now working on a bill to help those in the group, a spokesman, Miguel Ayala, said, but the chances of providing them with additional weeks of benefits seem dim.
“It’s going to be extremely hard to pass,” said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. “We barely got 60 votes to keep 99 weeks, so it’s even harder to get more.”
Other ways of helping the long-term jobless might have a better shot of succeeding, Mr. Stettner said, like a temporary jobs program or assistance for emergency needs.
Ms. Jarrin ping-pongs between resolve and despair. She received her last unemployment check in the third week of March, putting her among the first wave of 99ers. Her two checking accounts now show negative balances (she has overdrafts on both). Her cellphone has been ringing incessantly with calls from the financing company for her car loan. Her vehicle is on the verge of being repossessed.
It is a sickening plummet, considering that she was earning $56,000 a year in her old job, enjoyed vacationing in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, and had started business school in 2008 at Iona College.
Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.
“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.
Last year she moved to Brentwood, Tenn., south of Nashville, in search of work. After initially trying to finish her M.B.A. program remotely, she dropped out because of the stress from her sinking finances. She has applied for everything from minimum-wage jobs to director positions.
She should have been evicted from her two-bedroom apartment several months ago, but the process was delayed when flooding gripped middle Tennessee in May. In mid-July, a judge finally gave her 10 days to vacate.
Helped by some gas cards donated by a church, she decided to return to this quiet New England town, where she had spent most of her adult life. She figured the health care safety net was better, as well as the job market.
She contacted a local shelter but learned there was a waiting list. Welfare is not an option, because she does not have young children. She says none of her three adult sons are in a position to help her.
A friend wired her $200 while she was driving from Tennessee, enabling her to check into a motel along the way and helping to pay for her stay here. But Ms. Jarrin doubts that much more charity is coming.
“The only help I’m going to get is from myself,” she said. “I’m going to have to take care of me. That has to be through a job.”
So, in her drab motel room, Ms. Jarrin has been spending her days surfing the Internet, applying for jobs.
Lining the shelves underneath the television are her food supplies: rice and noodles that Ms. Jarrin mixes with water in the motel’s ice bucket and heats up in a microwave; peanut butter and jelly; a loaf of white bread.
Ms. Jarrin still has food stamps, which she qualified for in Tennessee. But she is required to report her move, which will cut them off, so she will have to reapply in Vermont.
She has been struggling with new obstacles, like what to do when an address is required in online applications. She is worried about what will happen when her cellphone is finally cut off, because then any calls to the number she sent out with her résumés will disappear into a netherworld.
The news, however, has not been all bad. She had her first face-to-face interview in more than a year, for a coordinator position at a nonprofit drop-in center, on Monday.
And last Thursday, she got her first miracle, when an old friend from New York sent by overnight mail $300 in cash, enough for another week in purgatory.