In The Long Wait For Aid From Washington, Job Hunters Despair

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 5:20 pm
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Lawmakers are promising new efforts to restore jobless benefits for long-term unemployed, but it may take a while - 1.4 million people who've been out of work long term saw their benefits disappear three weeks ago. Congress failed to agree on funding to renew them. NPR's Tovia Smith visited with a few people who are without work in Boston.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: John Pratt(ph) has worked in the financial sector nearly 30 years. Starting at the bottom with no college education, he worked his way up to a well-paying operations job. As his company struggled since the recession, Pratt survived two rounds of layoffs but last spring lost his job.

JOHN PRATT: It's just very frustrating.

SMITH: Over the past eight months, Pratt says he's applied to more than 60 jobs, many paying a lot less.

PRATT: Your pride takes a hit because you want to be there for your family and you're doing everything you possibly can and now it's just really taking a toll.

SMITH: Pratt has already dipped into retirement savings and now with his unemployment check suddenly cut off, he worries he may have to do it again.

PRATT: I'm like, okay, how am I going to be a month from now? I have no idea. But every time I think about it, I get a knot in my stomach and it's not what I wanted.

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SMITH: In downtown Boston, people are lined up an hour before opening at a state-run office for the unemployed. Counselors here offer help with benefit claims as well as resumes and interviewing skills.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So what we're going to do is something called a 15-second pitch.

SMITH: After five minutes of prep, a room full of job seekers attempt their pitch.

SALLY: My name is Sally. I am looking for employment as an oral surgery assistant.

STEVE: My name is Steve. I'm a graphic designer.

JENNIFER TAUB: My name is Jennifer. I am a clinical psychologist with a background in children and family.

SMITH: Forty-four year old Jennifer Taub(ph), a single mom who was laid off in May, was a finalist for a few jobs, only to find the hire put on hold because of the company's finances. Taub's unemployment check was just a small fraction of what she used to make, but she says it helped her make her mortgage and keep her condo. With the support now gone, she, too, is thinking of dipping into her retirement.

TAUB: Now, I'm just worried about making ends meet and do I pull my child out of his afterschool program. I'm worried about my $1,400 Cobra payments.

SMITH: For a while, Taub says she was glued to the news as Congress debated extending benefits, but she stopped, she says, when it made her too anxious and angry. Out on the street in Boston, the sentiment is largely shared, but there's also concerns about the cost of extending unemployment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I figure they should not because where is the money coming from? We owe billions of dollars. We're a debtor nation.

SMITH: Usman Secona(ph) who now works in IT for an engineering company says he himself was unemployed and got benefits for just six months.

USMAN SECONA: When my unemployment stopped, that pushes me to look harder for a job because when I was getting my benefit, I was looking for a job, but not as hard as I've been doing afterwards when benefit was stopped.

SMITH: The same argument has been made in Congress, but to those job hunting now, it only adds insult to injury.

BLAKE TAYLOR: You know, it's disgusting. It's disrespectful.

SMITH: Twenty-four year old Blake Taylor(ph) was working his way through school last spring when he lost his job. Unable to find a new one, he moved back in with his folks, transferred to a cheaper college and took out his first student loan. He says he already has more than enough motivation to find a job.

TAYLOR: I'm flat broke, you know. I don't want to ask my dad for money to get on a bus to go to school.

SMITH: Like Taylor, Pratt and Taub say losing benefits doesn't make them more motivated to find a job, just more distracted and stressed.

PRATT: I'm not trying to pull any quick ones on anybody. I just need something to come in to help with some of the bills, you know.

TAUB: And to keep you from sliding too much into debt.

PRATT: Exactly.

SMITH: Taub says she's now spending hours a day looking into other kinds of public assistance. As one career counselor here put it, cutting unemployment benefits isn't going to save any money. Taxpayers, she says, are just going to pay further down the line. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.