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Or the jobless, for that matter?  I think the most emotionally debilitating part of this situation has been the isolation it has created.  My interactions with other adult humans are pretty much limited to brief chit chat with the checkout clerk at the grocery store, a comment exchanged with another parent while we await the dismissal bell, and two minutes of conversation with my daughter’s basketball coach at the end of practice.

The kids are less affected as they continue to attend school, have play dates and are involved in activities like basketball, choir and the school play.   But my social circle, small to begin with due to our moving around and unconventional lifestyle (being a single mom to four by choice, a rare thing, even rarer in professional circles), has essentially disappeared. You don’t realized just how important work is for social interactions until you no longer have a job.  As blogger Joe Malik, in “Unemployed in Tacoma” remarks with a measure of humor:

“Until I was summarily booted out of the place, I didn’t realize how much I had come to depend on my workplace for social connections. And that’s the really pathetic part, because most of the people I worked with were generally annoying, or downright despicable human beings.

So why do I miss some of them so much?

Well, the people you work with – whether you like it or not – are kind of like your surrogate family. You see them every day. You know about what goes on in their personal lives… most of all, the workplace seems to be one of the few places that many of us have a chance to make any sort of deep, personal connection with people.”

It is sad how that ‘deep, personal connection’ turns out to be the most superficial of connections once it’s severed. Former colleagues (one of whom recently characterized my blog as a “depressing website” in an email to another former colleague) are the first to disappear off your social landscape. Another place for making those connections is church, but since we left our church (in response to what I considered an unfortunate change in leadership) shortly before becoming unemployed and homeless we discovered those ‘friendships’ to be similarly superficial.  As I’ve remarked before group membership (even unofficial) is what counts.  When you are out, you are really out!

What about friends and family, you ask?  Friends, and family, while initially concerned, seem to grow increasingly uncomfortable with and tired of your unemployed/homeless status the longer it lingers on.  Compassion fatigue settles in. Your status overshadows everything, and while you are both bored with the subject, like an elephant in the room, it cannot be avoided.  So instead they avoid you.  New acquaintances are both curious and repelled by your situation – offering generic words of comfort while withdrawing from interactions with you the way one might do with someone infected with a peculiarly grotesque and contagious disease.  They marvel, “How do you manage?” while backing away. Who invites a leper out for drinks?

Even social networking falls by the wayside as your experience begins to vary substantially from your connections on LinkedIn, your ‘friends’ on Facebook, and the members of all those yahoo groups to which you belong.  It becomes harder for you to relate to their lives and events which begin to seem increasingly complacent and superficial to you, while your struggle with very essential, bottom-line issues is foreign and discomfiting to them. BTW- along this line I plan to start a 2nd blog for single parents in this situation in which there can be multiple authors and points of view, support and resource exchange.  I guess if you lose your group memberships you need to find, or start, new groups!

It’s odd the way this isolation makes itself felt at times.  For instance, most recently, the kids’ school was having one of those jog-a-thon fundraisers to fund future fieldtrips and each family was supposed to find sufficient sponsors to raise $150 per child.  Where do you turn, school fundraiser, or Scout cookie or nut sales, in hand?  To your colleagues, friends, members of your church and the other organizations to which you belong.  And although so starved for conversation that I’ve frequently engaged the checkout clerk in lengthy exchanges to the despair of the people in line behind me, I haven’t been able to bring myself to solicit jog-a-thon sponsorships from complete strangers! 

I’m not the only unemployed person to feel this sense of isolation.  In “The Lonesome City Blues,” Pulitzer Prize winner and former LA Times columnist, Al Martinez, blogs about the loneliness of being unemployed; saying of the jobless, “We occupy a landscape of spiritual desolation.”

Among the unemployed, blog after blog is filled with tales of isolation and loneliness, with the feeling of being cut off from the world around us.  Some people struggle with depression, others tell of the loss of hope, and anxiety about the future.

And a column in USA Today, titled, How Joblessness Hurts Us All, states the following:

“Recent studies confirm the results of research during the Great Depression — unemployment badly frays a person’s ties with his community, sometimes permanently. After careful analysis of 20 years of monthly surveys tracking Americans’ social and political habits, our colleague Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin has found that unemployed Americans are significantly less involved in their communities than their employed demographic twins. The jobless are less likely to vote, petition, march, write letters to editors, or even volunteer. They attend fewer meetings and serve less frequently as leaders in local organizations. Moreover, sociologist Cristobal Young’s research finds that the unemployed spend most of their increased free time alone.  

Moreover, beyond civic disengagement, places with higher joblessness have more pervasive violence and crimes against property. They have more fragile families with harsher parenting, and higher rates of mental disorder and psychological distress among both the unemployed and the employed. These social consequences are a powerful aftershock to communities already reeling economically.”

Our social landscape is changing, shifting and cracking, in ways the still gainfully employed and big financial institutions may not initially notice but will surely feel in the future.

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By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.
Robert Frost

“You lost your job?  You should start your own business!  Be your own boss!”

OK – my response to this suggestion has been one of incredulity.  But that’s because I can’t imagine trying to start a business with no capital, credit or workspace.  Not to mention I don’t know what sort of business I’d start if I had all those things.  But I can see the draw of working for oneself and apparently other out of work people can too, because stories abound about recently unemployed people doing just that.  For some the loss of a job means the freedom and incentive to transform a beloved hobby into a business or pursue the dream of working for themselves. 

Some entrepreneurs have essentially just transferred their old jobs to their own company, like the laid off auto worker who bought machinery from his closing plant and started his own machining company.  Or the chemist who started his own lab when the Pfizer the plant he had worked in closed.   These folks had the skills, clearly had startup capital, and had the business connections they needed to make their own small business successful. 

Other unemployed people have taken even more of a leap – and are doing something completely different from their old jobs; like the executive who had made hand painted t-shirts for fun and after losing her high paid job turned her craft into a business.

For those of you who have the desire and wherewithal to start your own business, here are some online resources –

Not many people who find themselves unemployed can, or even want to take the leap into owning their own business.  Some don’t have the capital, can’t get a loan or there’s not a demand for their services. But that doesn’t mean that the entrepreneurial spirit isn’t alive and well among unemployed Americans.  After all the unemployment check doesn’t quite meet the bills – even the extremely pared down bills we face.  So we search for jobs but also look for ways to make some extra money.  We barter our services – a massage for a haircut – or pick up things for cheap and resell them.  We keep chickens in the backyard and sell the eggs.  We walk dogs or mow yards or lend some muscle when someone’s moving.  We don’t have a business plan and we won’t show up at the next Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting; you might call us casual entrepreneurs. 

There are internet resources for the casual entrepreneur as well.  Craigslist lists all sorts of temporary and part-time jobs and ‘gigs’ – not all of which are scams.  But don’t bother responding to the weight loss study that claims to pay $1500 for your participation – that one is a scam!  If you have a band or can clean houses, fix a crack in a windshield or reupholster a chair I can link you up with someone willing to pay!  And if you get desperate – well, there’s always www.desperatedollars.com – the website that advertises a wide range of possible jobs – from doing voiceovers to working on a cruise ship, to selling your blood, sperm, eggs or hair!  Or perhaps you’d consider tattoo advertising?  I wonder if they guarantee tattoo removal if the product you are advertising goes out of business? 

If you lose your job and have or are in danger of losing your home as well, you may have decided it’s a good time to sort through things and shed some clutter while making some cash.  Perhaps you’ve had a yard sale or two, listed things on Craigslist or eBay, or gathered together any gold jewelry you have and were willing to part with and taken it to the shops that buy gold.  I did that.  I had some gold chains and charms I purchased when I was in college and it wasn’t too painful to part with them even knowing they were destined to be melted down – not when it meant food for the family for a week.  But the few family heirlooms – the grandparents’ wedding rings – those I couldn’t part with.

The trouble with selling things for cash is that eventually you run out of things to sell.  And the cash has gone to pay bills or buy food and gas.  Before moving out of our rented house I sold or gave away all our furniture, plus hundreds of books, the Christmas ornaments, tree and décor, pottery and Asian antiques I had collected, wine glasses, toys, bikes, clothing, bedding, household tools and appliances. What was left was either things we needed – camping gear – or held dear or were worth nothing to anyone else.  Those things went into a storage unit.

I was at that storage unit earlier this week and found myself in the midst of an auction.  People who hadn’t kept up with their rent were now losing their possessions.  It was with a macabre curiosity that I trailed along behind the group of about 25 men (yes, I was the only woman present) who were there to bid on the units. Of the six units up for auction, 2 were redeemed at the last minute, leaving 4 on offer.  I hung around the periphery of the crowd as they waited for the auctioneer, listening to them shoot the breeze.  Most seemed to know each other, clearly they regularly made the circuit of storage unit auctions.  They chatted about their triumphs and failures at previous auctions.  One man laughed about the storage unit full of designer shoe boxes that he’d bid up to over $1,000, only to find out after he won that each and every box held one boot- the left foot boot.  He sent them all to a landfill.  Another told of finding a discarded handgun which when turned over to the police, turned out to be a murder weapon.  But the auction at our storage center was more mundane.  One was full of miscellaneous unmarked boxes and a scattering of tools and car parts and strangely several old pots full of dirt; another one held cheap furniture, a stained mattress, a dirt bike and a full-sized older almond colored refrigerator which smelled as if it still held food.  The units, each around 10×5 feet, mostly went for a couple hundred dollars. The only one that garnered more bids, going for over $700, was stacked floor to ceiling, crammed full of boxes and boxes and boxes.  The boxes were neatly labeled toys,children’s clothing, movies, kitchen, bedding, books, photos… They were someone’s life.  They could have been our boxes in our storage unit and I hearkened to the warning – keep current on the rent!

As much as I felt sickened by knowing that someone had lost possessions they valued, I benefit, to some small degree, from such losses.  Having sold all that we had to sell, I’ve had to look around for additional merchandise for my eBay listings.  I attend estate sales, check thrift shops, cruise yard sales on the weekend and am a regular at our warehouse sale (and they buy up storage units, PODS, estates, etc.).  I’ve had mixed success with my attempts to be an entrepreneur. Rarely I stumble on a hidden gem – a first edition autographed book picked up for $1 and sold for $40, for instance. I sometimes invest in things that no one wants, or under estimate the cost of shipping and eBay fees and lose what small profit I might have made.  As a business it’s not much of a success, although some months I bring in an extra $100 or so and that makes all the difference in being able to buy groceries, or pay bills.  But beyond the money it makes, or doesn’t make, my entrepreneurship gives me something to do – a focus, and a feeling that I’m still contributing bread to my family’s table.

A caveat – this is an entirely personal POV post.  I’ve never been a particularly vain person, never had reason to be.  And no one who knows me would consider me ‘high maintenance.’  I have short wash and wear hair, nails that haven’t seen a manicure since grade school, and a ‘beauty’ routine that uses less than a handful of products. Regardless, like any American woman influenced by the media and my own desire to look attractive, I exfoliated, plucked, and moisturized, dabbed on a bit of scent, and slicked on some lipstick on a daily basis.

But when we had to pack up our belongings and move to tents this summer I wasn’t thinking about looks. It was like an extended camping trip, right?  Who packs make-up to go camping? My primary concern was that the family was fed and safe.  Well, clean, and clothed were secondary.  That’s how basic it got.  I packed soap, shampoo, toothpaste and brushes and a first aid kit, not lipstick, moisturizer and Crest Whitestrips!

The two months we spent in the tents camping out in the parks were tough. Mid-summer in California is dry and the campsites had seen constant use since the beginning of the season. It was impossible to get and keep clean – walking back to the tents from the public showers (where a quarter bought you 3 minutes of hot water) we would begin to acquire a fine coat of grime, the first of many layers before our next shower.  We spent hours in the sun and even liberal doses of sunscreen couldn’t keep us from developing deep freckled tans.  Fingernails broke in the setting up and taking down of tents, bug bites accumulated and festered.  Whether it was due to squinting in the sun or fretting over our future, new lines were etched onto my face, leaving me with the appearance of a perpetual frown. My “beauty routine” consisted of putting on deodorant.  I ignored the damage – there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway. 

Since moving into the trailer some things have improved.  It’s perfectly easy to brush our teeth after meals for instance and we shower much more frequently.  We can keep clothes clean after laundering them – something that was hard to do in the tents.  I can even, though not easily, color my hair again.  I retrieved my moisturizer from our storage unit but am uninspired to mess with makeup.  When you aren’t going to work every day, the need to look professional fades. Depression, poor diet and lack of activity have layered on the pounds, and with the sun damaged skin and lined face; I look five years older than I did this time last year.  Just one more toll this journey has taken.

We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose.

George Orwell (1903-1950) British novelist, essayist, and critic.

Think about this.   There were foreclosure filings reported on 2.8 Million U.S. properties in 2009, a 21 percent increase in total properties from 2008 and a 120 percent increase in total properties from 2007.  The prediction for 2010 is more of the same.  And yet at the same time apartment vacancy rates are up nationwide – hitting a 30-year high of  -8 percent nationally in the fourth quarter of 2009,  even though in many areas rents have decreased.  Some vacancies are due to foreclosures of the rental properties themselves with renters being displaced during the process. But others are due to apartment dwellers who are favorably positioned to take advantage of the low home prices, moving out and purchasing a home of their own. 

The number of renters prepared to purchase (and able to get a loan) is far fewer than the number of people who are losing their homes so we aren’t exactly talking about a real-life episode of ‘Trading Spaces.’  And that disparity in numbers means there are houses that are uninhabited. Abandoned homes aren’t just eyesores or social art (see http://www.kevinbauman.com/100abandonedhouses/ and http://www.onlykent.com/20100203/home-encased-in-ice-by-two-artists-us-housing-crisis/), they are also becoming prime targets for thieves and havens for squatters- some involved in criminal activity, according to a report by the advocacy group ACORN. 

In an editorial in the NY Times titled “Slumurbia” the author describes the fate of a development built on the bulge of the real estate bubble:

“Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the winter storms that have hammered California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Nobody is home in the cities of the future.”

So there houses that are uninhabited, and apartments sitting vacant; where have all the people gone?  According to one recent study titled “Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009; the forgotten victims of the subprime crisis,” the majority are living with friends and family; staying in emergency shelters; in motels; in transitional housing; and on the street.  A minority are living in another house that they rent or own.

Why are so many people failing to find a stable place to live even though apartment vacancies are up and rents are down? The answer seems to be in part that at least some of the people who have lost their homes have also lost their jobs.  And in the process they’ve probably used up their liquid assets trying to keep their house, or had bills they couldn’t pay due to loss of income.  So they end up without a job, without a home, without assets and without good credit.  Try finding a landlord that will rent to you under those circumstances. 

People who only a short while ago were employed, housed, members of the middle class are now living on the streets!  As one respondent in the above mentioned study on foreclosure to homelessness remarked,

“This should not be happening. We were the middle class and now we are poverty stricken. We had two cars, money in the bank and a reasonable mortgage. My husband is an electrician and simply cannot find a job anywhere.  On September 12, 2008 my husband’s company sent everyone home. The company could no longer afford to pay their employees. We have had no money coming in since then and absolutely no prospects. Our savings is all gone… our home is being auctioned off. So much for the American Dream.”

Since it seems difficult to get people back into homes or apartments, some communities have begun to recognize the need to accommodate people who live in a vehicle of some sort. In Santa Barbara, California, a public sleeping-in-cars program has been in place for years.  Other communities, while railing at the growing number of homeless, continue to remain rigid in their views of appropriate housing.  Just south of Santa Barbara, officials from the city of Ventura, announced last year a pilot version of the same program, on a smaller scale on private lots, but ran into opposition from residents and business owners concerned over safety and sanitation. Citing similar concerns, the city of Camarillo banned the practice outright.  Sleeping in cars is better than being on the street.  But it’s no way to live.  It’s potentially dangerous, cramped, cold in the winter months, and lacks privacy or any sort of bathroom or kitchen facility. 

Lately I’ve come across, or have been sent, articles about other families who have lost their homes and who have, like us, resorted to living in RVs or travel trailers.  Like the Renaults who are one homeless family among more than 20 living in an RV park in Tennessee; or the Teels in Las Vegas who live in a 25-foot travel trailer with their teenaged daughter.

Following hurricane Katrina charities launched nation-wide drives asking for donations of RVs to provide housing for victims of the disaster.  Lately charitable organizations have done the same thing for the newly homeless, generally on an individual basis as with the small Ojai charity that donated a decades-old, but still working, recreational vehicle to a homeless healthcare-giver and single mother.  Great idea. But unless you have a place to park it, you have a house on wheels with no place to call home! Parking is just one aspect.  A lot of travel trailers, like ours, are not ‘self-contained’, that is we have no generator for electricity.  At the park we are hooked up to an electrical outlet and to water and sewer.  Even self-contained RVs need a dump station to periodically empty the grey and black water tanks when they are full. 

There are so many people who opt for trailers upon losing their homes that there’s a page at the Got Trouble website with ‘how to’ information for those choosing that option!  They don’t deal with the downside, however, such as the fact that many RV parks won’t let you in if your rig is old – and old is relative.  There’s one park near us that has a cut off of 3-years!  And anything older than 10-12 years isn’t allowed in any of the parks around here.  And in California you won’t find a campground that rents a space for the $10 a night mentioned in the article-try $35 to $50.  And while abandoned houses and vacant apartments abound there are relatively few RV Parks and those are diminishing in number – one near us has vacancies but can’t rent them because the park is slated to be demolished so that more houses can be built –  and fewer that allow long term parking.  RV parks, after all, are created to cater to a transient population – vacationers and retirees who are traveling around, seeing the country.  Most welcome pets but many are less than family friendly, lacking safe play areas for children.

I think RV living could be an excellent solution for many of those made newly homeless through foreclosure and job loss.  Particularly for families who have a vested interest in their community, want to maintain some semblance of continuity for their kids and don’t want to give up their pets.  Instead of trying to force these people into shelters or transitional housing with inflexible rules or impose public sleeping-in-cars programs on local residents, communities should look to developing or providing full-facility RV Parks.  Places with a reasonable rent, utility hook-ups, wireless internet and/or cable (gotta keep up those job searches after all), sanitation, laundry facilities and play areas for children.  They should relax the age restrictions on the rigs so people can park those ‘decades-old, but still working’ RVs in the park.  And they should hire some of those unemployed folks to manage the park, keep the grounds, and provide maintenance.  These parks could become stable and safe communities and for-profit business concerns- helping both the economy and the homeless.

I cruise the news online and listen to NPR during the day and my ears always perk up when there’s news about the economy. But boy, it’s hard to predict where the economy and job market are going to go – when the information changes so much from DAY to DAY!  For example on February 3rd (yesterday) Business Week had the following to say:

Companies in the U.S. cut an estimated 22,000 jobs in January, in line with forecasts, according to data from a private report based on payrolls.

The drop was the smallest in two years and followed a revised 61,000 decrease the prior month, data from ADP Employer Services showed today. ADP figures overstated the Labor Department’s estimate of private payroll losses by 500,000 in the six months to December.

“The trends are heading in a positive direction for the labor market,” said Russell Price, a senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc. in Detroit who forecast ADP would show a decline of 30,000. “Businesses are becoming more confident that the economy does have legs.”

Woo-hoo!  The economy has legs!  I feel a glimmer of hope. Let’s get the economy running again!  And then today, February 4th,  CNN reports that according to the Labor Department weekly report there were 480,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week that ended Jan. 30. This is the highest level since Dec. 12 and up 8,000 from an upwardly revised 472,000 the previous week.  What happened to those legs?  How can we make sense of these reports when one day things are looking up and the next day the job news sends the Dow plunging?

Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.
– Jodie Foster

 

I’ve been hearing the phrase, ‘the New Normal’ lately.  Apparently it means that Americans will continue to suffer financially, have high unemployment and slow growth.  

Recently ABCNews.com asked readers how they’re adapting to today’s economic conditions.    The article leads off with:

The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the ensuing recession [has] forced Americans to change their lives in ways large and small. It’s a world of “new normals,” with more belt-tightening, less income and, in many cases, a newfound gratitude for the most basic human comforts: family, home and health.

Readers responded with tales of cutting discretionary spending, clipping coupons, foregoing vacations and purchases of big-ticket items, moving in with relatives, and sacrificing to keep businesses afloat and kids in college.   

In putting an extremely positive spin on the new normal, a columnist for the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon says:

In the new normal, people will think and plan differently for the future.

There is a sense that the worst is over and a kind of pride in surviving the worst of times. There is a satisfaction that comes from emphasis on real needs, simple pleasures and a focus on managing what one can control. People are taking pride in their shopping skills. Shopping at thrift stores is no longer just fun and funky; it just makes more sense, in most cases, than buying new.

I’ve seen family ties that have been strengthened. In times of financial crisis, many families are forced to communicate. Even divorce rates are falling.

These articles made me think of something a friend recently said.  The current recession doesn’t have the visual impact of the Great Depression with the bread lines and hobos or the recession of the 1970s with the endlessly long gas lines.  Sure there seems to be an increase of homeless on street corners with the ubiquitous ‘Anything Helps’ signs, and more foreclosed homes on the market, but to her it appears that most people she knows are just going about their lives.  

Today we see the recession in the statistics on the news – the upward spikes in unemployment, the flat line of growth, the downward curve on the earnings statement from your retirement plan.  Many members of the middle class – particularly those who have been in their homes for years, kept their jobs and aren’t on the doorstep of retirement – have been relatively insulated.  Those people probably are watching their spending, and focusing on ‘simple pleasures and real needs.’  

And even the many, many people who have been more dramatically affected by this recession are responding in ways that aren’t so obvious to people on the outside.  If they clip more coupons or vacation closer to home, or shop the clearance racks, or put the mortgage payment on a credit card, it’s not something their neighbors are likely to notice.  These aren’t images that will illustrate a book on the Great Recession ten years from now.

Our own new normal isn’t nearly so invisible but at the same time a lot of people who ‘know’ us aren’t aware of our desperate circumstances.  Although I haven’t hidden our situation, outwardly, away from the trailer, we still model the old normal.  The kids participate in school events like theater and choir and extracurricular activities like basketball.  Scholarships are invisible. If we don’t purchase the team photos or if they have to share balls or uniforms; their teammates don’t have to know. When the kids go through the cafeteria line no one knows they are getting a free lunch.  Their clothes are clean, and we aren’t the only family by far to be wearing fashions from Target or Kohl’s instead of trendy designer clothing.  We don’t line up at food banks for our food or flash a food stamp card when purchasing groceries.  Digital coupons are invisible and if we use a donated gift card, well, lucky us!  Parents who see me dropping off and picking up the kids or at the PTO meeting assume I’m a stay at home mom (which I am, I guess). 

For the kids’ sake I’m glad we don’t wear our unemployed/alternatively housed state like a neon sign.  I want their lives to be as ‘normal’ as possible.  But like other families who are privately wrestling with the effects of the recession our outward life doesn’t mirror the inward one.  When I’m out in public, even if I’m shopping at a thrift store, I feel like I’m putting on a façade, playing a part.  At home in our trailer I struggle with ways to make it to the end of the month or deal with unexpected expenses (and btw- we really appreciate those of you who provide donations that help me to do that).   The dissonance between the outward and inward lives causes constant stress.  Some days I just want to drop the pretence and wear a t-shirt that pictures a homeless person holding a sign and below the photo says “I’m with him”.

Have I been looking for a job?  Yes!  And I’ve applied for several jobs in my field (environmental permitting) locally.  As well as several jobs in my field that aren’t local (Hawaii), and several jobs that aren’t even in my field but that are local.  I’ve had two interviews.  One job (in my field) went to an entry level person at an extremely low salary and the other job (out of my field) went to someone with more experience.  Most of the resumes and applications I send out disappear into the Ethernet without any response.

 I get a lot of comments suggesting that I really need to just take any old job that I can, so I wanted to address the financial realities of that.  A low paying job, after taxes and deductions are taken out, will not meet even our lowered barebones expenses.  A job paying $15 an hour – which is actually a higher wage than a lot of the ‘any old jobs’ listed these days (most pay around $10-11 an hour) after taxes and deductions (I’m estimating those combined at around 25%) would net around $1800 a month.  That’s what unemployment pays now.  But since I would have to put all 4 children in an afterschool program (and camps during breaks), that expense would increase by $924 a month over the $308 I pay now (and camps would be much more – summer camp for 4 kids runs around $540 a week/$2160 a month).  So I’d have the same income but almost a thousand dollars more in expense just in childcare during the school year. 

Plus if I took a temporary job paying $15 an hour I would reset the amount of unemployment for which I am eligible (currently I’m eligible for the maximum amount) and if I had to file again would not in any way be able to support my family. 

So why not retool for a new career?  Aside from the fact that the idea of starting over again at my age is daunting, if I want to train for another career I would have to give up our only income (unemployment) while training, which combined with the fees for attending classes and the possible additional childcare expenses, makes it impossible.  Despite all the ads from trade schools proclaiming a plethora of jobs in their fields it’s entirely possible that I could retrain and not find a job as other factors come into play when looking for employment.  As I’ve mentioned before (and as is documented in this economy across the country) things like age and credit score are considered by employers. 

An article about middle-aged job seekers competing with teenagers, interviewed a 57-year old job seeking ex-freighter captain at a job fair in Irvine, reporting that:

Seasoned workers have been especially hard-hit as the economy sheds job because with their experience comes a bigger salary.
“What’s happening is companies have laid off massive numbers of workers; typically what happens is they lay off the most expensive workers first,” said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange.
That ends affecting youths as well, because the newly jobless “try to find jobs in other sectors for much less pay,” Adibi said.
That was clear Saturday as Yang waited for an interview as a retail store greeter, a relatively lucrative job fair opening, thanks to its $13-an-hour wage.

The article went on to say, that unlike his youthful competitors Yang at least had savings to fall back on.

Another article sent a dire warning to job seekers- “sweat the small stuff because hiring managers are knocking candidates out of the running for the smallest mistake.”

The irony is that there are so many middle-aged, middle class professionals out of work that they’ve created a little niche market for entrepreneurs.  For instance there are websites that cater to the middle-aged  job seeker – some of which, judging from comments (e.g., “I’ve signed up at retiredbrains.com and all I get are email postings for casinos or the Army”)  appear to be more of a benefit to their creators than to the job seeker who visits them.  And there’s a new movie that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival – “Company Men” directed by John Wells that deals with this subject. 

In the case of “Company Men,” the three main characters played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper are laid off from a conglomerate and lose their comfortable boardrooms-and-golf existence.

Opening with a scene of Affleck’s character smugly enjoying a pre-work golf game at the country club just before he finds out he’s fired, the film follows all three as they are forced to re-evaluate their careers and lives, stripped of jobs that provided not only a paycheck but confidence and self worth. 

Add another factor- poor credit score- which affects job seekers who have had to deal with foreclosure into the competitive market and you begin to understand why your applications disappear into the Ethernet without response.

“In today’s job market, the expectation is that employers can afford to be extremely selective about candidates,” says Bob Schoenbaum, principal of KeyStone Search, an executive recruiting firm in Minneapolis. “While credit might not be the most important factor in a hiring decision, bad credit can be a tipping point between one candidate and others competing for the job.”

Obviously remaining on unemployment indefinitely is not an option – it runs out eventually – and it’s clearly not a healthy situation.  It’s hell on one’s self-esteem.  Towards the end of the school year I intend to start searching farther afield for a job – but will try and stay in the warmer climes as we will probably have to maintain our trailer home for some time and frankly because I hate the cold!  But that won’t change my age or credit score.  Over the next few months I’ll continue to explore the idea of moving to China to teach English. Perhaps after a year of that the economy will be better here and there would be more development, and thus more jobs in my field. I do think that would have its own stresses (not the least of which is that the kids are not enthusiastic about it).  And I’ll continue to write.  And in the dark predawn hours I’ll reflect on the truth of Anonymous’ comment that social security survivor benefits are more than unemployment and wonder if the kids would be better off without me. But I won’t be applying for retail or other low paying jobs.

If, as George Bernard Shaw was purported to have said, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven” what is an unhappy family?

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating.  Becoming homeless has a severe negative effect on families. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless:  “It disrupts virtually every aspect of family life, damaging the physical and emotional health of family members, interfering with children’s education and development, and frequently resulting in the separation of family members.”  Lest you think this sort of strong language only applies to impoverished, uneducated, substance abusing families headed by young single moms who were victims of domestic abuse (in other words the stereotypical homeless families), let me assure you it does not.  While being educated, mature and relatively healthy, undoubtedly helps a parent deal with the difficulties of becoming homeless, those characteristics alone are not enough to counteract the stress and strain on the family. 

Homelessness frequently breaks up families. Families may be separated as a result of shelter policies which deny access to older boys or fathers. Separations may also be caused by placement of children into foster care when their parents become homeless. In addition, parents may leave their children with relatives and friends in order to save them from the ordeal of homelessness or to permit them to continue attending their regular school. The break-up of families is a well-documented phenomenon: in 56% of the 27 cities surveyed in 2004, homeless families had to break up in order to enter emergency shelters (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2004). http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/families.html

I have been proud to have managed to keep my family together during these past 6 months, but with increasing frequency I wonder if it’s really something of which to be proud?  Granted these thoughts occur most often during my 3 AM insomnia period when all seems gloomiest and most hopeless, but they come to me in the daylight as well.  Are the children being irreparably harmed by our situation?  Would they benefit from living with another family or families in a more stable situation? What am I really providing for them and does it make up in any way for all that is denied them now?

Initially I was certain that I would quickly find a new job and things would return to normal.  But as the months of fruitlessly submitting job applications pass by my hopes dim. I cannot believe my lack of progress and suspect my applications are being screened out in the early phase.  I begin to wonder if my age or credit score are playing into employers’ decisions not to even interview me.  It is extremely frustrating as prior to this I have never had a problem securing a new position.  It is also very depressing.

Inasmuch as I try to put on my Pollyanna face in this blog, proclaiming our tiny trailer to be sufficient, I am sure no one really believes that I think it can meet the needs of a family of 5 indefinitely. Living in this small space on a paltry, inadequate income (unemployment) is unbelievably difficult and has affected our health and outlook on life.  We are irritable, and pessimistic.  I don’t know how much longer I can continue in this situation and I feel certain it would be better for the children if we didn’t.  Too bad the options are so limited.

Vampires are all the rage these days on-screen and in novels.  Not being a teenaged girl I don’t see the attraction and my own personal  experience with a bloodsucker is considerably less romantic.  I’m talking about my bank (of course) – which actually belongs to that supposedly more benign form of money lender- a credit union.  For months I’ve been stymied in my banking and dealing with bills for services that I no longer use and have repeatedly tried to cancel (the newspaper for one).  While I try to watch my meager budget carefully I’m often blindsided by some long ago authorized charge suddenly hitting my account.  When that happens – as it did recently for the newspaper bill (which I’ve now canceled 3 times) and my account is down to the few dollars I have left after budgeted expenses, the credit union dings my account $25.  Over this past holiday weekend that started a free fall as other checks hit and new $25 dollar fees were added.  It completely sucked up the check I had deposited on Friday (but on which there was a hold for 3 days) to cover expected costs.  Arrgggh! It’s impossible to get ahead here.  This is my life- being dragged facedown over gravel.

California is the land of vanity plates.  If I had one it would say HNDBSKT.

O world, how apt the poor are to be proud.
William Shakespeare

Programs for children who are homeless or in otherwise straightened circumstances are, in my experience, more accessible and benevolent than those available to adults.  The children are not shamed or made to prove their worthiness.  Oftentimes word of mouth is enough to ‘enroll’ a child in a program.  It was through that method that my kids were given a back to school shopping trip to Target in September and invited to a Christmas party complete with a visit from Santa and gifts in the past month.  Once a week an advocate from the school district meets privately with the kids and asks how things are going for them- is there anything they need? School supplies are replenished without question and certificates for free haircuts appear in their folders. Free school lunches were available with the filing of a simple form and there is nothing that singles the kids out as a recipient when they go through the cafeteria line.   I am grateful that the children have these services available but even more grateful for the light touch with which they are administered. 

What a world of difference between those programs and the public ‘assistance’ programs available to adults.  Asking for help is hard enough when you’ve worked your entire life and have not only singlehandedly supported your family but have been able to lend a hand to others in need.  It’s made even more difficult when the programs set up to provide assistance treat the petitioner like a criminal, a liar, or an incompetent idiot.  You want food stamps or help with medical insurance?  Be prepared to have a mug shot and fingerprints taken and to provide reams of data that normally you would have held as personal and private information- bring your birth certificates, insurance policies (life, medical, burial), utility bills, mortgage statement, car registration, title of ownership (what on earth does that have to do with medi-Cal?), pay stubs, child support, stocks and bonds, bank and credit union statements, retirement plan statements, in short just about everything except the results of your last gynecological exam and if they could think of a reason I’d bet they’d demand that too.

Want transitional housing after losing your home?  Be prepared to have to sign up for mandatory savings program and life skills classes (classes in budgeting, parenting and housing searches), and for your family to be under the scrutiny of a ‘mentor’.  Oh, and leave your animals, wine and friends of the opposite gender at the door- they aren’t allowed in. 

And don’t expect to be met with sympathy and compassion.  Almost without exception I have found the workers at these programs to be rude and indifferent.  They sit on the other side of the desk avoiding eye contact and recite the program’s requirements in a bored monotone ending with an impatient sigh.  They may well have said the same thing over and over again in the past months but they can be assured that it’s the first time we’ve heard it, so it would be nice if they didn’t act like we were stupid when we have a question or two.  The worker’s attitudes are mirrored in the letters we receive from the programs.  Forget sitting down with someone who asks in a caring way- is there anything you need?  Instead you will receive poorly worded official correspondence that uses demanding and vaguely threatening language: “If you don’t return the requested items by such and such date you will be removed from the program.”  Would it hurt to write and say something along the lines of ‘We noticed that you haven’t returned the requested items and we really don’t want you to lose the benefits for which you are eligible so we are sending this reminder’?

I am sure that there are and have been many people in the system who need the handholding, the life skills classes, the mentor who makes sure they don’t relapse back to the bad habits that sent them out onto the streets.  But times have changed.  Thousands of newly unemployed people are competent, highly educated adults who have worked in professional positions for decades.  We aren’t drug users, victims of domestic abuse, high school dropouts.  Show us some respect.  For that matter how about treating all of the program recipients the way you would like to be treated in similar circumstances?

Just like in the airport security there need to be two or more lines- one for people who need more help and time to get through the process and one for frequent fliers who travel light and know where they are going!

Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.
Kahlil Gibran

Box Car Kids

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