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As benefits expire, long-term unemployed make do with less

February 22, 2014 at 10:53 AM EDT
On Dec. 28, 1.3 million Americans lost their unemployment insurance when an emergency federal unemployment insurance program expired. Critics of extended unemployment benefits say the benefits raise jobless numbers by allowing people to stay unemployed longer instead of taking an available job. But people like Trista Selmar-Steed, a 38-year-old former medical biller who lost her job in 2012, say the benefits have kept her family above water while she looks for work. Special correspondent John Carlos Frey reports from Georgia.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: I open it up and just rip it down the middle. Separate it.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Trista Selmar-Steed cuts a lot of coupons these days… In fact she’s becomes a bit of a fanatic about it.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: This is my coupon box, container, I carry it with me to the grocery store. Coffee, cake, butter, milk, pasta, sugar — this one here is for household goods and personal items.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: You never know that coupons will save you as much money as you– it actually has.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: The 38-year-old who lives in a suburb just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, has been saving all these coupons because as of December 28th, she has no income. She was one of 1.3 million Americans who lost their unemployment insurance when an emergency federal unemployment insurance program expired.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: That same week that I expected to get that next check was the same week that I had a bill that was due — but I wasn’t able to pay it. I had to ask my husband to start paying my part of the bills and that’s the sad part, not being able to help my husband pay– pay the bills.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Trista, who used to make $30,000 a year working for a medical billing service, was laid off from her job in November of 2012, and hasn’t been able to find a job since.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: I sensed a year out there in this job market has kind of beat you up a little bit, yeah?

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: It’s very sad that– to have the qualifications and not be able to actually work, you know, get a job in your field. And I’ve been doing this 2007.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Why do you think it’s so hard for you to get a job?

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: I’m not sure. A lot of companies are still laying off.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Trista has now been without her benefits for 8 weeks. To make matters worse, her husband who is a truck driver was hurt on the job and is now on what’s known as light duty, working fewer hours and only taking home about 60% of what he used to which now equals about $2000 a month.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: So that’s another whammy, you know, something else that started– started the down spiral, excuse me.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: They say they now have to dip into their savings just too pay their bills. She says things have gotten so bad, that when she’s not at her computer for several hours each day looking for work, she’s and her husband spend their free time watching TV just to lift their spirits.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: Cartoons and comedy, it have us laughing. It takes your mind off of the things that you might be going through.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: There’s some people who would say that people who are on unemployment don’t want to look for a job. They just want to live off the unemployment. It’s– it’s a free easy paycheck.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: It’s not a free easy paycheck. That’s what– for me, it’s not. I know what I like in life. I know what I strive to have in the future. And I can say some people might try to use that, but me personally, I– that’s not me.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: While Trista believes that extending her benefits would give her the cushion she needs to get another job, Economics Professor Jeff Dorfman, who teaches at the University of Georgia, says that the extended unemployment benefits ARE the problem.

JEFF DORFMAN: The studies show it raises unemployment more by allowing people to stay unemployed longer, still searching for a really great job instead of taking a job that’s available.

Dorfman points to North Carolina. Last July the state legislature cut unemployment benefits from 73 weeks to 19 weeks. In the months since the state unemployment rate dropped from 8.9 percent to 6.9 percent.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: And you attribute that to cutting 50 weeks of unemployment insurance.

JEFF DORFMAN: When you suddenly get cut off, you realize, “You know, I need to take a job.” And people in North Carolina apparently found jobs.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Others attribute the decline in unemployment there to unemployed workers giving up their search for work. And they note the drop in unemployment has been coupled with a big increase in the number of people there on food stamps.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: As for Trista, she says she’d be happy to take a job outside her medical billing field. She says she’s applied for all kinds of jobs during the past year, everything from driving a school bus or a truck to clerical jobs at CVS and Wal-Mart. Even as a flight attendant with Delta. All of them met with rejection.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: We regret to inform you that you have not been selected for this position at this time. Thank you for applying and best wishes for success in your future endeavors. Delta talent acquisition team. And I’ve gotten that three times from Delta, so…

TRACY MOSLEY: You hear the– the theory that some people are just a couple paychecks away from homelessness. Well, we actually see that.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Tracy Mosley is the Transition Program Coordinator for the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, an organization that helps African Americans find and train for jobs. He warns of dire consequences unless unemployment benefits are extended.

TRACY MOSLEY: We actually see people that– had a sustainable income, that had a good job, good employment. But all of a sudden they find themself homeless.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: The problem is particularly acute in the African American community where the unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. Mosley says the interview and job prep classes his organization offers have been filled to capacity with people like Trista Selmar-Steed, who he says are desperate for work. She recently met with a job counselor here.

COUNSELOR: so you are being recommended for a position with MARTA, which is the transit authority for Atlanta, that our bus railway system that we use here. That’s one of the opportunities you’ll be considered for. So I wanna make sure that you are going to be available on March the 3rd so I can have you lined up for an interview.

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: Ok, well thank you so much, I really appreciate this, this is a big help.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Trista is crossing her fingers that this lead might just pan out… but for the time being just getting to the Urban League’s office in Atlanta, a 45 minute drive from her home in the suburbs is a financial burden now that she doesn’t have an unemployment check every week.

TRACY MOSLEY: And so if their source of income, of temporary income, is cut off — A lot of them cannot even afford to come down here for their training.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: But Professor Jeff Dorfman says that government benefits can’t go on forever.

JEFF DORFMAN: Our compassion has never been unlimited in this sense. We always eventually cut people off. We already had some mechanism for deciding at some point we’ve gotta stop paying for you.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: And some would argue that we’re not there yet. We’re not at that point in the recovery where we should start cutting back. We still need to fund for an extended period of time.

JEFF DORFMAN:  The longest we’ve ever kept benefits before is 35 months after the end of a recession. And we’re at 55 months now. So we’re 20 months, that’s over a year and a half longer than we’ve ever provided these extended benefits for.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Dorfman believes that if the government is going to intervene, that money could be better used retraining the unemployed for new jobs. For now, with Congress at an impasse, it looks like Trista, and nearly two million others, will have to survive without the federal life line they’ve come to count on in these hard times..

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: I mean, it dampens your spirit a little bit, but the only way you can prosper, I’ve learned, is to keep a high spirit // And so I just look at it as where one door closes, someone will eventually hire me.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: After a year, you still feel that way?

TRISTA SELMAR-STEED: I still feel that way. Yes.