The New Poor (conclusion) It is Happening

Posted: February 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

“We have a work-based safety net without any work,” said Timothy M. Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “People with more education and skills will probably figure something out once the economy picks up. It’s the ones with less education and skills: that’s the new poor.” Here in Orange County, the expanse of suburbia stretching south from Los Angeles, long-term unemployment reaches even those who once had six-figure salaries. A center of the national mortgage industry, the area prospered in the real estate boom and suffered with the bust. Until she was laid off two years ago, Janine Booth, 41, brought home roughly $10,000 a month in commissions from her job selling electronics to retailers. A single mother of three, she has been living lately on $2,000 a month in child support and about $450 a week in unemployment insurance — a stream of checks that ran out last week. For Ms. Booth, work has been a constant since her teenage years, when she cleaned houses under pressure from her mother to earn pocket money. Today, Ms. Booth pays her $1,500 monthly mortgage with help from her mother, who is herself living off savings after being laid off. “I don’t want to take money from her,” Ms. Booth said. “I just want to find a job.” Ms. Booth, with a resume full of well-paid sales jobs, seems the sort of person who would have little difficulty getting work. Yet two years of looking have yielded little but anxiety. She sends out dozens of resumes a week and rarely hears back. She responds to online ads, only to learn they are seeking operators for telephone sex lines or people willing to send mysterious packages from their homes. She spends weekdays in a classroom in Anaheim, in a state-financed training program that is supposed to land her a job in medical administration. Even if she does find a job, she will be lucky if it pays $15 an hour. “What is going to happen?” she asked plaintively. “I worry about my kids. I just don’t want them to think I’m a failure.” On a recent weekend, she was running errands with her 18-year-old son when they stopped at an A.T.M. and he saw her checking account balance: $50. “He says, ‘Is that all you have?'” she recalled. “‘Are we going to be O.K.?'” Yes, she replied — and not only for his benefit. “I have to keep telling myself it’s going to be O.K.,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d go into a deep depression.” Last week, she made up fliers advertising her eagerness to clean houses — the same activity that provided her with spending money in high school, and now the only way she sees fit to provide for her kids. She plans to place the fliers on porches in some other neighborhood. “I don’t want to clean my neighbors’ houses,” she said. “I know I’m going to come out of this. There’s no way I’m going to be homeless and poverty-stricken. But I am scared. I have a lot of sleepless nights.” For the Eisens, poverty is already here. In the two years Ms. Eisen has been without work, they have exhausted their savings of about $24,000. Their credit card balances have grown to $15,000. “I don’t know how we’re still indoors,” she said. Her 1994 Dodge Caravan broke down in January, leaving her to ask for rides to an employment center. She does not have the money to move to a cheaper apartment. “You have to have money for first and last month’s rent, and to open utility accounts,” she said. What she has is personality and presence — two traits that used to seem enough. She narrates her life in a stream of self-deprecating wisecracks, her punch lines tinged with desperation. “See that,” she said, spotting a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Standing on a sidewalk, he waved at passing cars with a sign advertising a tax preparation business. “That will be me next week. Do you think this guy ever thought he’d be doing this?” And yet, she would gladly do this. She would do nearly anything. “There are no bad jobs now,” she says. “Any job is a good job.” She has applied everywhere she can think of — at offices, at gas stations. Nothing. “I’m being seen as a person who is no longer viable,” she said. “I’m chalking it up to my age and my weight. Blame it on your most prominent insecurity.” Two Incomes, Then None Ms. Eisen grew up poor, in Flatbush in Brooklyn. Her father was in maintenance. Her mother worked part time at a company that made window blinds. She married Jeff when she was 19, and they soon moved to California, where he had grown up. He worked in sales for a chemical company. They rented an apartment in Buena Park, a growing spread of houses filling out former orange groves. She stayed home and took care of their daughter. “I never asked him how much he earned,” Ms. Eisen said. “I was of the mentality that the husband took care of everything. But we never wanted.” By the early 1980s, gas and rent strained their finances. So she took a job as a quality assurance clerk at a factory that made aircraft parts. It paid $13.50 an hour and had health insurance. When the company moved to Mexico in the early 1990s, Ms. Eisen quickly found a job at a travel agency. When online booking killed that business, she got the job at the beauty salon equipment company. It paid $13.25 an hour, with an annual bonus — enough for presents under the Christmas tree. But six years ago, her husband took a fall at work and then succumbed to various ailments — diabetes, liver disease, high blood pressure — leaving him confined to the couch. Not until 2008 did he secure his disability check. And now they find themselves in this desert of joblessness, her paycheck replaced by a $702 unemployment check every other week. She received 14 weeks of benefits after she lost her job, and then a seven-week extension. For most of October through December 2008, she received nothing, as she waited for another extension. The checks came again, then ran out in September 2009. They were restored by an extension right before Christmas. Their daughter has back problems and is living on disability checks, making the church their ultimate safety net. “I never thought I’d be in the position where I had to go to a food bank,” Ms. Eisen said. But there she is, standing in the parking lot of the Calvary Chapel church, chatting with a half-dozen women, all waiting to enter the Bread of Life Food Pantry. When her name is called, she steps into a windowless alcove, where a smiling woman hands her three bags of groceries: carrots, potatoes, bread, cheese and a hunk of frozen meat. “Haven’t we got a lot to be thankful for?” Ms. Eisen asks. For one thing, no pinto beans. “I’ve got 10 bags of pinto beans,” she says. “And I have no clue how to cook a pinto bean.” Local job listings are just as mysterious. On a bulletin board at the county-financed ProPath Business and Career Services Center, many are written in jargon hinting of accounting or computers. “Nothing I’m qualified for,” Ms. Eisen says. “When you can’t define what it is, that’s a pretty good indication.” Her counselor has a couple of possibilities — a cashier at a supermarket and a night desk job at a motel. “I’ll e-mail them,” Ms. Eisen promises. “I’ll tell them what a shining example of humanity I am.”

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