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When Unemployment Benefits Run Out

photo: clementine gallot

Looking for signs of an economic revival? Some think they are finding them in last month’s unemployment numbers. Not me.

Yes, the unemployment rate may have dropped from 9.7% to 9.5% in June. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployed worker has been out of work for 35.2 weeks, and the number has been climbing steadily for over a year. The unemployment rate is stuck above 9%, and there are five unemployed workers for every job opening.

Despite this crisis, last week, Congress went home without passing another emergency extension of unemployment benefits. This affects 1.2 million workers: they will no longer collect unemployment checks, but there’s no evidence that losing their benefits will spur them to get a job any faster in a depressed economy. You couldn’t put it any more clearly than a Senate report released this month: “Unemployment Insurance Does Not Discourage Job Search Behavior.”

For workers nearing retirement age or with disabilities, the situation is even worse.

I’d like to tell you about one unemployed person, my neighbor, Deborah. This is not her real name, and I’ve changed a few identifying facts, but the the story is true.

Deborah is 59, divorced, and lived, until recently, in my apartment building. She paints and makes quilts, and has often invited my daughter over to work on art projects. She worked as a teacher and classroom aide in the public school system, and then as an office worker for the local community college, for a total of over 25 years.

A couple of years ago, Deborah developed knee problems which required multiple surgeries. Since then, she’s used a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair. Last year she was laid off. She’s collected unemployment since then. Her benefits ran out last month (to be clear, this was not directly because of Congress’s inaction, but the result is the same regardless of the cause).

For a while, Deborah was looking for work. Eventually, like so many in today’s job market, she gave up. No one, it seems, wants to hire a 59-year-old with a disability. Her computer broke, and she didn’t have the money to get it fixed. She began to spiral down into depression.

Last week, Deborah asked if I would come over and help her with her finances. When I did, it was immediately clear that finances were far from her only problem. Her apartment was a mess, and she told me she was being evicted in two days. She was behind on rent and other bills. We sat down and I asked her what benefits she was receiving.

“Nothing,” she told me.

“What about SSI?” I asked.

“They told me I was getting too much from unemployment to qualify,” she replied.

What about Medicaid or the state health plan? Same answer.

“I’ve always been such a physical person,” Deborah told me. “Now after I walk to the store, I have to take a nap.” She seemed deflated and genuinely surprised that her situation, which had been deteriorating for some time, had finally fallen apart.

I saw Deborah often during this time of slow decay, and in retrospect I should have seen the warning signs and offered to help sooner. However, I don’t know how much I could have done. (Yes, I may just be trying to make myself feel better.) When two of Deborah’s friends came over to help her pack, one told me, “We’ve been trying to give her a sense of urgency about this for months.”

So, better late than never, I picked up the phone. I called Senior Services, who told me they couldn’t help her until she turned 60. I called a city program that helps people apply for public assistance; the voicemail message said they were out of the office and would be back next week. I had the best luck with public housing. I asked (it was actually more of a command) Deborah to sit down with me and fill out the online application for senior and low-income housing. We were able to select housing projects in our neighborhood, which is walkable and well-suited for someone who can neither drive nor walk very far. But people wait up to three years for those properties.

Deborah’s eviction deadline came, and a friend came to pick her up. They left behind piles of belongings, which will go to the dump. Deborah will be staying at her friend’s house for a month or two, until she finds a new place. I spoke to the friend on the phone to offer my help. “I’ve known her for over twenty years,” said the friend. “She’s never gone through a depression like this. She doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

As bad as it is, Deborah’s situation could have been a lot worse. She didn’t turn to alcohol or drugs, she didn’t go into significant debt, and she’s eligible to apply for early retirement benefits from her government jobs. Furthermore, she had friends to call on when she needed them. The friend she’s staying with is going to help her apply for benefits, and I’m going to call the housing authority this week to check on her status.

Still, the whole thing scared the crap out of me. I think I’m smart about money and a good advocate for myself and my family—but I’ve never had this belief tested under fire. If I got into a tough situation, would I curl up into denial? If my wife or a friend told me that I was in bad shape and needed help, would I listen? What self-destructive aspects of my psychology would suddenly come to the fore?

Right now, I feel like I could spring into action and take charge of the situation like Tommy Lee Jones when tragedy strikes. Deborah probably felt that way, too.

I know how to prepare for financial turmoil: my family has savings and insurance. It’s the mental and emotional turmoil that worries me. There’s no insurance against having your brain lock down into short-term survival mode or worse.

This week, I called Deborah to see how she was doing. She sounded a lot better, and she gave me permission to write about her story.

There’s no moral here other than the obvious and cliched ones that I’m trying to etch into my own brain so I can rely on them when the time comes: It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to accept help. And above all, the part Deborah got unequivocally right: be nice to people, and they’ll be there for you. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a form of insurance.

Matthew Amster-Burton, author of the book Hungry Monkey, writes on food and finance from his home in Seattle.