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This Week in Poverty: When Even Santa Can't Get a Job | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: When Even Santa Can't Get a Job

In May 2012, Richard Crowe was laid off when the steel mill where he had worked for thirty-four years was shut down. He’d worked there since graduating from high school. New ownership filed for bankruptcy.

“The judge threw the workers’ contract out, the owners walked away with $20 million, and we got nothing,” says Crowe, who is 54, and lives in eastern Ohio.

Seven months later, Crowe is one of 5 million “long-term” unemployed workers in the United States who have been looking for work for more than six months. They are disproportionately older (over 50), women, and minorities, and according to today’s jobs report, their employment prospects haven’t much improved.

If Congress doesn’t extend the unemployment insurance program by the end of this year, 2 million of these workers will lose their benefits between Christmas and New Years Day, another 1 million by April 2013 and more than 5 million people will be without benefits by the end of 2013, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). This would occur at a moment when there are still 12 million people unemployed, and there are approximately 3.4 unemployed applicants for every available job opening.

“The jobs are still not there,” says Edith Harrison, 59, who lives in Colorado Springs and was laid off from her job at a senior assisted living facility in August. “How can you cut unemployment benefits off, and blame someone for not being able to get a job, when they didn’t create the situation?”

The anti-poverty effect of unemployment insurance is significant and undeniable. In 2010, the program lifted 3.2 million people above the poverty line (less than $18,000 for a family of three). In 2011, it lifted 2.3 million people above the line, including 620,000 children. (The program had less of a poverty reducing effect last year in part because a provision in the Recovery Act that paid an additional $25 per week in benefits was allowed to expire.) The average benefit is just $291 per week and it covers approximately 40 percent of a typical family’s food, housing and transportation costs.

What is most egregious to both Harrison and Crowe is the stereotype—voiced by people who want to cut the program or drug test benefit recipients—that unemployed people are lazy and would rather collect modest benefits than work.

“It’s funny, but it’s pathetic—a lot of people think you’re out here for a handout,” says Crowe. “I worked all my life. I paid into unemployment, I paid into Social Security, I paid into everything. I want off this unemployment, I want a job.”

In fact, Crowe has applied for 157 jobs. He and his wife are willing to relocate—they put their son through college and he is now living independently. Crowe has applied for jobs in Nevada and South Carolina—in the steel industry and in new lines of work.

“In the steel industry, companies are hiring 20-year-olds that have never even been in a mill before, and passing on people like me—an experienced operator and maintenance technician,” says Crowe. “Then you go look at other jobs and they say ‘you don’t have no experience.’ ”

He recalls applying for a job delivering packages for UPS. The interviewer looked over his resume and asked, “Pretty much you worked in the mill all your life?”

“Yeah,” Richard told her.

“Have you ever had any experience delivering packages?”

“I felt like telling her, ‘Yeah, once a year, I play Santa Claus,’ ” he tells me, laughing. “This is the stuff you go through.”

Harrison says she gets up early every morning—“ just like I’m going to work”—drinks her coffee, and gets on the computer to search for jobs.

“Retail, restaurants and customer service—most of the jobs out there—they say they want people who are ‘high energy’ for a ‘fast-paced environment’,” she says. “I’m not saying I can’t do it, but I’m 59, and if they have a choice they’re going to take the person who’s younger.”

Crowe also thinks his age is making it difficult for him to land a new opportunity. He has applied for many jobs knowing that he’s overqualified, including warehouse work. Often, he doesn’t even receive a reply, and sees the jobs still being posted months later.

“It’s my age holding me back. I can’t prove that, but I’m getting that feeling after going through all this,” he says. “If they see a 5 or 6 in front of your age—I’m just visualizing when people look at that they just laugh and throw your application off to the side.”

Unemployment benefits are a lifeline for Harrison and Crowe. In 2002, Harrison was laid off from her job as a secretary for the local school district. (She had also previously worked as a secretary in Detroit Public Schools for nineteen years, and as a case manager and skills development specialist for Goodwill Industries.) She ended up homeless, and sleeping on couches in the homes of families and friends. She fears it could happen again.

“I don’t want to go through that again,” she says. “How can you find a job if you don’t have anyplace to stay? When you’re out there, your life is just all up in the air. It takes a long time to come back from that.”

Harrison says her $227 per week benefit helps her “keep the lights on” and pay the rent.

Crowe receives $382 per week and says it covers his utilities and his car payment. He and his wife are also using their retirement savings “just to survive.”

“If they don’t renew these benefits, I won’t have any income,” says Crowe. “I’ll lose my house, I’ll lose everything.”

Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for NELP, says she is “cautiously optimistic” that unemployment insurance will be reauthorized for 2013—either as part of any “grand bargain” or a more limited package of cuts and revenues prior to January 1. She notes that the $30 billion program was included in President Obama’s initial offer to Republicans to avert the fiscal cliff. She also says NELP has had lengthy and productive conversations with Democratic leadership, staff members for most of the Democratic Senate Caucus, and many House members as well.

“All of them really do understand how important and crucial this program is right now,” says Conti.

On the other hand, conservatives continue to demand that any reauthorization of unemployment insurance must be paid for, but Conti says that that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve through any bill that includes significant cuts and savings.

“We’re not really seeing the same kind of pushback we have seen in previous years,” says Conti, “where Representatives have wanted to change the nature of the program, or beat up on the unemployed as lazy.”

It also can’t hurt that Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s, estimates that every $1 in unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in economic activity—since those benefits are spent so quickly. Also, the Congressional Budget Office found that reauthorizing the program for 2013 would create 300,000 jobs.

While she waits to see how this plays out in Congress, Harrison is doing her best to keep her spirits up.

“I used to stay on that computer from the beginning of the day to nighttime looking for work,” she said. “I would have a headache, wouldn’t even eat—had to make myself eat. Now I try to keep balance—get up early in the morning, get on that computer—and after so long and so many résumés, I stop. You don’t want to make yourself sick. I just stay prayerful.”

As for Crowe, he says the ordeal has taken a toll on his family—especially his wife, who he says “worries every day” as they try to cobble together enough money through unemployment benefits, her low-wage work and their retirement savings.

“I’m doing everything in my power that I can, but I can’t make someone hire me,” he says.

Tell Congress to reauthorize Unemployment Insurance for 2013 at UnemployedWorkers.org.

Announcements

This Week in Poverty will continue to post every Friday. Beginning next week, TheNation.com will also post Today in Poverty once a week. There are so many people and groups doing great poverty-related work—studies, actions, writing, TV, radio—the single blog is way too long. Let us know what you think (after we try it).

Also, I’m looking forward to joining the excellent Melissa Harris-Perry on her show this Saturday at 10 am. Hope you can watch.

Get involved

Tell @WhiteHouse to Protect and Strengthen SNAP today!

Protect low-income Americans in budget decisions

Nuns on the Bus for Medicaid Expansion

Renew Unemployment Insurance for 2013

Studies and other resources (co-written with Christie Thompson)

Youth and Work: Restoring Teen and Young Adult Connections to Opportunity,” Annie E. Casey Foundation. The unemployment crisis in the US is hitting young people of color the hardest. Today, nearly 6.5 million youth are “disconnected”—meaning they are neither employed nor enrolled in school. Employment among young people is now the lowest it’s been in fifty years, having dropped by half since 2000, and the racial disparity is stark: among 20–24-year-olds, 29 percent of black youth are out of work and school, compared with 20 percent of youth in that age group overall.

With high school and college graduates forced to take low-paying entry-level jobs, those without a GED are all but barred from most work places. The result is a vicious circle for low-income youth who can’t get a job without previous experience.

It is also estimated that out of school and out-of-work youth cost taxpayers $1.56 trillion in public assistance.

The solution, the Casey Foundation says, is to reinvest in disconnected youth. We must increase funding for job training and flexible educational opportunities—including community service, internships, summer and part-time work—while creating jobs that allow young people to support themselves and their children.

The Recession’s Ongoing Impact on Children, 2012,” Julia Isaacs and Olivia Healy, the Urban Institute. This report looks at the impact of the recession on children by comparing three key indicators: the percentage living with an unemployed parent, receiving food stamps (or SNAP benefits), and living below the poverty line. The conclusion? American children are worse off today than they were five years ago.

Nearly one in ten children in the US have parents that are unemployed, compared to 5 percent of kids before the economic downturn. Even employed parents are struggling to put food on the table, as more than one in four American children receive SNAP benefits.

A companion paper recommends steps Congress and the President can take to strengthen protections for kids.

A Poverty and Opportunity Agenda: What's in Store for the Next Four Years,” (VIDEO) Brookings Institution, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Representative from both sides of the aisle debated how the Obama administration can fight poverty and increase opportunity for all Americans. We heard that the keynote speech by Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to President Obama for economic policy, was particularly good.

Replacing the Thrifty Food Plan in Order to Provide Adequate Allotments for SNAP Beneficiaries,” Heather Hartline-Grafton and James Weill, Food Research and Action Council (FRAC). There’s a reason Newark Mayor Cory Booker calls living off SNAP benefits a food stamp “challenge.” For too long, low-income families have been forced to live off of the meager nutritional assistance allotted to them under the “Thrifty Food Plan.” This plan has its roots in the 1930s and was developed for short-term, emergency use. But today, it requires a family of four to live on $627 dollars a month, or $5.05 per person, per day. FRAC takes a closer look at the “Thrifty” plan to reveal just how impossible that budget really is.

“The research shows that SNAP benefit levels need to be improved, not cut as some in Congress are proposing,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “SNAP is a great program but its gains are limited by the allotment shortfall. Cuts will cause more hunger, more poverty, and more ill health.”

Employment-Based Retirement Plan Participation: Geographic Differences and Trends, 2011,” Craig Copeland, PhD, Employee Benefit Research Institute. In 2011, nearly 40 percent of American workers took part in a work-based financial plan to save for retirement. The percentage of employees remains mostly unchanged from 2010, halting the three-year decline that occurred during the recession. But low-wage, part-time, women and minority workers remain less likely to take part in such saving plans than their counterparts. Two-thirds of American women over age 65 live entirely on Social Security that on average provides $1,000 in monthly benefits for women—worth paying attention to during deficit debate.

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Clips (compiled with Christie Thompson)

…Cuts to WIC Could Cripple….” Sheila Bapat

OC Food Bank sees 50% drop in federal funding,” Ben Bergman

A different kind of busing approach to desegregation,” Steve Bogira

Proposal to drug test welfare recipients may gain steam in Kansas,” Brad Cooper

Poor Women and Children Faced with Fiscal Threat,” Bryce Covert

The Hollowing Out of America,” by Steve Fraser

Santorum’s Three Things to Avoid Poverty: The Very Serious Person’s Version of Makers vs. Takers,” Shawn Fremstad

Buildings Get High Marks—From Feds, Not Tenants,” Henry Gass

…In Response to Republican Budget Offer,” Robert Greenstein

Getting Away with Wage Theft,” Scott Lemieux

Child Care Subsidies: Family Copayments Vary Widely Across States,” Sarah Minton and Christin Durham

Organizing McDonalds and Walmart, and Why Austerity Economics Hurts Low-Wage Workers the Most,” Robert Reich

Yolanda Andrews: The Home Defenders League Is Fighting Back,” (VIDEO) Francis Reynolds

Lines Blur as Texas Gives Industries a Bonanza,” by Louise Story

Keeping the Courthouse Doors Open for Low-Wage Women Workers,” Liz Watson

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,021 for a family of four): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including more than one in three African American and Latino children. Poorest age group in the country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

Increase in deep poverty since 1976: doubled—3.3 percent of population to 6.7 percent.

Below twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Youth employment: lowest level in more than 60 years.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

People age 50 and over at risk of hunger every day: 9 million.

Percentage of US population in poverty at some time before age 65: over 50 percent.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Quotes of the Week

“They’re saying, ‘We need the tax cuts to create jobs.’ Excuse me? You’ve had these tax cuts for ten years, where the hell’s all the jobs? It’s becoming a joke, but it ain’t funny.”
      —Richard Crowe

“Somebody needs to stick up for unemployed. They’re talking about a lot of things up there in Congress, but what about the people who have nothing?”
      —Edith Harrison

Christie Thompson co-wrote the Studies and Clips sections of this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. Look for Today in Poverty beginning next week. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

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