[EDITORIAL NOTE: This post just plain got away from me – it's way too long and I don't have time now to edit. Perhaps it's worth it in that hardly anyone reports on what unemployment without benefits is like in real life. You'll decide if it's too much information.]
Following the two-week holiday break, Congress and President Barack Obama return to work today. In his weekly address to the nation, the president, according to The New York Times,
”...insisted on Saturday that lawmakers make restoring unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans who are out of work their 'first order of business' in the new year.”
As you undoubtedly know, Congress members went back to their states having refused to include in the new, two-year budget an extension of the emergency program that provides 47 additional weeks of supplemental unemployment payments for the long-term unemployed.
Most reporting on the effects of unemployment cite lots of studies and statistics about the effect on the economy but leave out the stories of what it means to real people in real life - the day-to-day, grind of trying to survive, the fear of maybe never working again and, of particular interest to me, what that means to older workers.
One of the few things I have learned from my own experience in life is that if it has happened to me or if something is true for me, it has also happened to thousands and thousands of other people. Nothing about my experience is ever unique and that's why this, today's post, is so awfully, terribly sad.
As it turns out, I have a good deal of up close and personal experience with long-term unemployment that will affect me until I die so I think it's worth recounting what happened to me.
My first big bout of unemployment – 14 months – happened in 1999, when I was 58 years old. I arrived at work on a Monday morning at the internet startup where I was vice president of editorial and video development to find the office door padlocked.
I never did find the owner; she had absconded owing me about $24,000 in pay and expenses and, since I had been employed as an independent contractor, was not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Because I am discussing the personal, day-to-day trial of unemployment today, I will leave the ageism in job searching for another time but keep in mind that it is a constant, additional, debilitating factor. Here, then, are some of the things that happened to me.
Some Common Facts of Unemployment
“Fortunately” (note the ironic quotation marks), I had accumulated a bunch of credit cards. I took cash advances that helped support me but which, after awhile, mostly went to servicing the debt on each other – robbing a Peter credit card to pay – interest only – a Paul card.
When the amount of debt was beginning to scare me, I took a big gulp and began cashing in my 401(k) accounts losing a huge chunk of the money to tax penalties for early withdrawal. Before I was done, those accounts were empty.
I have always been good, when necessary, at frugality. Early on, I canceled all subscriptions and cable TV. I learned to live in a colder house in winter and never, ever turned on the air conditioner in summer – just a handful of days of cooling could double the electric bill.
At first, I cut the frequency of my $9 manicures in half, to bi-weekly, and then stopped them altogether. Nine dollars had come to be a large portion of my weekly food budget.
If you have ever been as cramped as I was for money, you know why some poor people are fat. You cannot afford nutritional food. Fresh fruit is a frivolity that is out of the question. Four dollars in Manhattan for a half-pint of berries? No way.
Did you know that Kraft macaroni and cheese is often on sale for a dollar a box? That if you don't mind feeling a bit hungry in the evening and drink lots of water with it, you can make it last for three meals?
Of course, my once-routine hair cut and color every five or six weeks was out of the question. I learned to touch up roots myself and style it as well as I could. (You have no idea how fast hair grows until you can't afford to have it cut.)
The only “excess” expenses I kept were a landline telephone and an internet account because even in 1999, there really was no other way to look for work.
Instead of dropping off my laundry once a week to be washed and folded as I had done for decades, I did it myself and stretched it to once every two weeks. Gossiping with neighbors for two hours at the laundromat became pretty much the extent of social life.
In the first month, I had stopped going to restaurants and soon I stopped meeting friends for even drinks or coffee. I made what excuses I could think up and after I had declined a few times, they stopped calling.
Except for the few job interviews I got, I never went anywhere that I couldn't walk. No subways, buses or taxis.
After several months, when I finally got my first, in-person interview, my hair was looking so awful that I went to a low-end salon for a cut and color (I couldn't spend the $250 charged by the woman who had taken such good care of me for years before my layoff).
As it turned out, the stylist did not know how to color gray hair so my roots – roots only - came out bright orange while the rest of my hair was almost-but-not-quite the light reddish color I wanted.
She wasn't inclined to fix it and since it was already evident that she couldn't color hair, I went back to the drugstore and was able to achieve an almost adequate color on my own before the interview.
A huge chunk of money each month went to paying my health care premium. Often, I thought of dropping it but was terrified of what could happen if I got really sick or if I got hit by a truck. It cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.
A few months before I'd lost that job, I had begun the process of dental implants. I have had rotten teeth since childhood and as I got old there was no more fixing them. But when the time came for the teeth to be attached to the metal posts, the cost was impossible. I was forced to continue to rely on the temporary “appliance.”
The worst emotional moment of these 14 months was when one of my oldest friends was hospitalized for serious cancer treatments several miles uptown from my apartment and I could not afford the $2.50 round-trip subway ride to visit her.
When, two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, I got a phone call out of the blue from a former boss who wanted me to start a job the next day, I was at the point of disaster. I had calculated that I could pay all my bills for just one month more.
The Emotional Toll
Anyone reading this who has been through a prolonged period of joblessness knows there is much more I could add to the list. And I should not omit the emotional toll.
I cried a lot during those 14 months. I slept little and was rarely rested. I longed to hang out with friends but after a few months it was not even a matter of money; I could sense that I was so deer-in-the-headlights frightened about what my future would be if I didn't find a job that I wouldn't be able to function normally.
Maybe you don't understand that last point. I reached a place sometimes where coherent thought hardly existed. Just worry – actually, paralysis - about losing my home, my life and overall, how alone I felt with nowhere to turn.
At that time, unemployment benefits in New York City – had I been eligible - would have given me about $375 or $400 a week. It would not have covered all my expenses even with the severe cutbacks I made, but it would have slowed the outgo of borrowed money dramatically.
That would have reduced the fear of the unknown that took such a terrible emotional toll and perhaps allowed me just enough more calmness to figure out a better approach to my dilemma.
But without that bit of help unemployment benefits would have given me, I was paralyzed most of the time.
Everything I have described is happening right now to millions of people because Congress refuses, in the worst economic situation since the Great Depression, to help.
Some have already lost their homes. Many have no health coverage. Others can't pay heating bills this winter. And they are also going hungry.
What the monsters – yes, that is what they are, the ones who voted against extending unemployment benefits – is that a little bit of money keeps people from being emotionally devastated and gives them some space to work on figuring out a future.
How Old Unemployed in Particular are Screwed
After I finally got that new job (entirely serendipity), it took several years to pay off those credit cards, years when I was therefore not saving for retirement. In fact, by the time I was laid off again, three years later, I still was paying off those cards.
Our fifties and sixties, after the kids are mostly done with schooling, are prime years to sock away money for old age, pay off the mortgage. They are also – well, used to be – prime earning years.
But as I have tried to show, a long bout of unemployment not only prevents saving, it eats up past savings, new debt accumulates and if you do find work again, there are years of paying off that debt so you still can't save.
In addition, the formula for the amount of one's Social Security benefit is based, in part, on highest earning years. This is the period during which so many older workers have been laid off and in this particular recession, hardly anyone – if rehired – is paid anything near what they earned before the layoff.
Younger workers are no less squeezed. It is well known that many have been forced to move in with parents. They are postponing marriage and families. But they have one thing older workers do not have and that cannot be bought at any price: time.
Most older workers will never recoup the money they have lost by using up savings, by not earning during their prime years, plus they will get another kick in the butt when their Social Security benefit turns out to be less than what it would be if they had been allowed to continue working.
That's how it is for them now. It will not get better. It is a permanent change until they die.
And those monsters in Congress won't give the unemployed even one little break those few dollars could make in their lives. Keep that in mind when you next wield the single power we have – the vote.
ANOTHER EDITORIAL NOTE: Following my mention last week of having lost more than 30 pounds, one comment and four – FOUR – emails arrived asking me for my weight loss secrets.
I've discussed my personal diet plan a bit in the past and it's not like I have a secret potion to sell. It's all sane, standard stuff. But it has worked and if enough of you are interested in knowing, I'll write a detailed report for you. Let me know.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Amazing I Say