By Lila Shapiro
New York — This week, the economy flashed multiple signs of improvement, from encouragingly brisk expansion on the factory floor to a slowdown in layoffs. Yet for the 15 million Americans still officially without work, these indicators did little to displace a gnawing anxiety that they may never reclaim their previous lives.
“There’s this large group of unemployed people who have, despite their efforts to get another job, been unsuccessful,” said Carl E. Van Horn, a labor economist at Rutgers University and one of the authors of a recent report, “The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in their Futures.” “Some people never will recover.”
The report, released by the the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, surveyed more than 1,200 respondents beginning in August 2009. By last November, only one-third of the original group had found new jobs. It’s a grim read.
Survey the big picture of the labor market and one could get the sense that a fix is finally at hand, from a decline in new unemployment claims to an increase in private sector hiring. But beneath these significant pieces of data, a fundamental sense of resignation and despair hovers over more than 6.3 million people who have officially been jobless for six months or longer.
“I have gastronomical discomfort all the time,” says Hazel Feldman, a 57-year-old social worker living in New York City who has been unable to find work since August 2008. “No matter how little I eat I always feel like I ate a Thanksgiving meal, I’m so tense. Emotionally, I lost all of my confidence, so now when I see jobs advertised — I don’t know if they’re phony jobs or real jobs — I ask myself a million times if I’m even qualified. I feel extremely ashamed.”
Even after more than two years of life without work, Feldman is smartly dressed and charming, her eyes still bright despite her anxiety. She is among the more fortunate of the long-term unemployed: those with ample enough savings to maintain a decent living standard, even as she worries about how she can continue.
She spends her days working out at the gym and applying for jobs. At various times, she has volunteered as a social worker with a variety of programs, most recently working with children on literacy.
She has a masters degree in social work from Hunter College and a B.A. from Fordham University but still has been unable to find work — within her field or outside it.
“My field has changed,” she says. “Now, it’s almost like a luxury to even hire a social worker, especially one with a masters degree. Social workers work with poor people with problems and poor people with problems are not highlighted right now. We don’t care anymore.”
Feldman’s unemployment insurance ran out this past September. She tried to secure an extension, to no avail.
“I reached out to three politicians locally, but the unemployment office said, ‘you’re done,'” she says. “They said I could ask for a hearing, but I am so demolished right now there’s no way I can fight the system. I don’t have the energy.”
Her savings have finally been depleted to the point that she is now seriously contemplating seeking public assistance–something she has never imagined in her life. She has spent much of her career aiding the poor, yet increasingly sounds like someone looking ahead and imagining joining those ranks herself.
“My last resort is food stamps, but I know I’m not going to fit the stereotype and I want to avoid bureaucracy,” she says. “I still have things I’m not willing to absolve just to get a food stamp because food stamps are temporary too.”
Feldman is relatively fortunate in one other regard: Her health remains good. For those unemployed who get sick, an already awful situation can quickly become a flat-out calamity.
The Rutgers study highlights how many basic needs have been surrendered by those who are out of work for long periods of time. Among the jobless in the survey, some eight-in-ten reported having cut their spending on food, health care or housing.
In Pittsburgh, Cynthia Paul, 50, has struggled with health problems but has been forced to go without care since last March, when she lost her temporary job as a customer service representative.
“I can’t go to the doctor,” she says. “I can’t get my car fixed because I don’t have a job. Everything’s a roller coaster, and it’s just a matter of time before everything starts breaking down.”
Paul is now living on food stamps and unemployment insurance. She struggles to find the energy to keep looking for work, with each rejection reinforcing a sense of futility.
“I didn’t do too much over the holidays, but I am starting diligently again,” she says. “But if you do it for so many months it gets so freaking depressing.”
Others in Pittsburgh are enjoying a slightly improving economy, but Paul is among those left out of the headlines, as if stuck in an old story.
Even those fortunate enough to find new jobs generally contend with significantly downgraded standards of living, with lowered wages and jobs they never desired yet must work for lack of other opportunities. More than half of those surveyed by Rutgers who had found new jobs said they continue to look for something better.
Feldman becomes angry when she hears politicians claiming that unemployment benefits take away the incentive for jobless people to seek work. She is so desperate for a job that she has even considered posting an ad on Craigslist offering $500 dollars to anyone who would give her one, but she worried that this, too, would go nowhere.
She remains stuck in a stagnant part of the American economy, what the Rutgers study refers to as an emerging new class — the involuntarily retired.