TOPICS > Economy

Long-Term Joblessness Takes Emotional, Spiritual Toll on ’99ers’

August 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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July's jobs reading came as bad news for job seekers and the U.S. economy. The Labor Department reports that 6.6 million people have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. Paul Solman talks to people who have been out of work for 99 weeks or longer as part of his ongoing series on making sense of financial news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now more on the jobs picture, focusing on the problem of long-term unemployment.

The Labor Department reported today that 6.6 million people, or 45 percent of the unemployed, have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at those who have been jobless even longer and what they’re facing.

It’s part of his ongoing reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

GREGG ROSEN, unemployed: I don’t remember what it’s like to be able to say to somebody or answer the question, what do you do for a living?

PAUL SOLMAN: Gregg Rosen lost his job as a marketing manager 31 months ago. His last unemployment insurance check came in March.

GREGG ROSEN: Now my answer is, I try and survive. I try to find a job in an economy where there aren’t jobs. That is what I do for a living.

PAUL SOLMAN: Faith Phillips lost her job as a title insurer in December 2007. This March, her checks stopped, too.

FAITH PHILLIPS, unemployed: My choices are either to be homeless or to move in to my parents’ very small home and live on the first floor.

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.),: The ayes are 272. The motion is adopted.

PAUL SOLMAN: Last month, a divided Congress extended unemployment insurance for the record number of those out of work up to 99 weeks. But the bill offers no aid to those who have been jobless more than 99 weeks.

This story is about these so-called 99ers, who have already exhausted their benefits, 1.3 million Americans, according to the government. The 99ers themselves think the number is closer to four million.

GREGG ROSEN: Where I feel like I’m being condemned or being forgotten are by the people that I voted into office to be my voice, to act on my behalf, to say, we’re here to help you. They were able to provide aid to Haiti in three days. But to help over four million people, it’s not brought up.

PAUL SOLMAN: All states offer up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. After that, a federal subsidy may extend the eligibility time. As the recession has dragged on, Congress has now authorized up to an unprecedented 99 weeks in states whose jobless rate tops 8.5 percent.

Liberal economist Josh Bivens thinks benefits should be extended further.

JOSH BIVENS, Economic Policy Institute: We’re facing a once-in-a-generation jobs crisis. I think there are people actively looking for a job for that entire period who are just not finding it, through no fault of their own.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, disagrees.


DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN, Former Congressional Budget Office director: Our problem now is, we are not growing fast enough. We’re not creating jobs for everyone who is out there looking. That is a macroeconomic policy question. And we should be doing everything in our power to grow faster. Unemployment insurance won’t do that.

MAN: The Republicans are saying, we have to stop this irresponsible spending.

PAUL SOLMAN: When not looking for work, Gregg Rosen tracks the benefits battle from his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

MAN: The Republicans are always talking, we love small business, yes. We love extending unemployment benefits. But when it comes time to walk the walk, they won’t do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rosen once earned six figures and lived large enough. Today, he mostly stays home, going out for errands just once a week, thus saving on gas.

GREGG ROSEN: I had — over the past two-and-a-half years, had two interviews, where somebody actually called back and said, we would like to talk to you. And one of those interviews, it was for a job that paid $35,000 a year, which, to me, was like hitting the lottery.

PAUL SOLMAN: He was told he was overqualified.

Faith Phillips’ home in Central New Jersey…

FAITH PHILLIPS: This the living room.

PAUL SOLMAN: … is mostly empty these days.

FAITH PHILLIPS: We did have furniture. It was a beautiful little ensemble, but we had to sell it all in order to survive. These are toys that my husband has collected from his childhood and up. We go to flea markets and sell the stuff to get money.

PAUL SOLMAN: Phillips and her husband both lost their jobs in 2008.

Why is all your stuff packed up here?

FAITH PHILLIPS: Unfortunately, my house is being taken away. It is in foreclosure. We had asked for help. We said, please, you know, can we save the house? They told us they will not talk to us unless we were employed. So, we, of course, were trying to seek employment. And it was a catch-22.

PAUL SOLMAN: Her husband found work as a truck driver, but, since they still can’t make the mortgage, foreclosure proceedings continue.

FAITH PHILLIPS: We were told our best bet is to stay in the house, because, if there should shall squatters or if there is any kind of vandalism done to the house, we’re responsible. So, we’re — so, we’re stuck here until they take it.

PAUL SOLMAN: After that, they will move in with her folks. For now, as the bills pile up, the sell-off continues.

The Phillips even unloaded their refrigerator. Phillips’ father, former policeman and security guard Marvin Zeichner, is also a 99er, also in favor of extending unemployment.

MARVIN ZEICHNER, unemployed: People need help, and I definitely need help. I’m having trouble making ends meet.

PAUL SOLMAN: And your daughter might move in with you.

MARVIN ZEICHNER: Right, added expense.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: I don’t think we should be without sympathy for these individuals. They certainly have been harmed deeply by the recession. And everyone on unemployment insurance is going to feel that way. But you don’t use unemployment insurance to solve all problems.

PAUL SOLMAN: Holtz-Eakin says past data are clear: Extending benefits provides a perverse disincentive to not work.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: Eventually, it hurts you. People search less vigorously. They stay unemployed longer. Their skills deteriorate. The job they ultimately take pays less well than one they might have taken earlier. But they continue searching, and their skills go downhill. And employers start looking at them as sort of worn-out members of the labor force.

PAUL SOLMAN: We relayed Mr. Holtz-Eakin’s position to Mr. Rosen.

GREGG ROSEN: The national average is $300 a week for an unemployment check. You’re talking about people that are in their 40s and 50s and 60s that make up the bulk of the 99ers. We were people that were making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year. Where is the disincentive to go out and say, I need to work?

PAUL SOLMAN: Phillips says she spent 40 hours a week looking for several years.

FAITH PHILLIPS: I am on the Internet every day. I send resumes upon resumes upon resumes via e-mail, fax, hand-deliver. I get no response.

GREGG ROSEN: I say to all the folks, the naysayers that say the unemployed are lazy or they are not looking for work, show us where the jobs are. You will see a line like you couldn’t believe.

PAUL SOLMAN: What about the argument that the economy would be better off, you in the long run would be better off if the money were spent on job retraining?

GREGG ROSEN: How do I survive in the meantime while you are training me? What are you training us for? I mean, I’m happy to look at it, but for what? More people are losing jobs every month than are being hired. So, what industry? Just point me in a direction.

Hi, guys. It’s Gregg. I’m back on. How are you all today?

PAUL SOLMAN: The emotional toll of long-term unemployment is the topic of an online support group Rosen is a part of.

MAN: It’s kind of a numbing, mind-killing exercise in futility applying for all these jobs and going nowhere.

MAN: Your self-esteem is just so shot that you don’t want to face people in everyday life.

WOMAN: You sit and look for jobs, and nothing comes up. Now I guess it’s just sit in your house until you die.

PAUL SOLMAN: For some, record long-term unemployment has simply proved too much.

GREGG ROSEN: There was a gentleman in Philadelphia just yesterday who was a 99er, had a family, and has had no benefits since the end of March, was refused entrance to a homeless shelter, put a gun to his head, and tried to take his life.

There is another gentleman that I deal with very closely. His father was 61. Felt like he was a disgrace to his family, walked into a men’s room, out on a pier in California, wrote a note, and shot himself.

We’re dying emotionally, spiritually, and literally.

PAUL SOLMAN: The man in Pennsylvania died Wednesday.

Rosen keeps a self-help book on his nightstand and has a scholarship at a local clinic, because he can’t pay for counseling to deal with his depression.

GREGG ROSEN: I’m basically trying to put a bandage on an open wound that is running — that my heart is hanging out, and all I can do is put a small Band-Aid on it.

FAITH PHILLIPS: This is where I spend countless hours looking for jobs.

PAUL SOLMAN: And in a downturn that has hit the whole country, Faith Phillips says, prospects are bad everywhere.

FAITH PHILLIPS: I have searched all states. And, unfortunately, they’re all basically in the same predicament that New Jersey is in right now. We can’t even afford to move. Everything we own is in this room right now. We have no money to even think about going anywhere. It’s — it’s so depressing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Depressing, the word of the year for the 99ers, stranded by a job market they could never have imagined.