Long-term unemployed describe lack of mobility, depression in personal stories

Since losing her job in 2012, and her unemployment benefits in December, Trista Selmar-Steed fears the end of the month, when her family’s bills are due.

“I had a bill that was due… but I wasn’t able to pay it,” she said. “And that’s the sad part. Not being able to help my husband pay the bills.”

Graphic: long-term unemployed

Amid a difficult economic landscape for out-of-work Americans, more than 1.7 million have lost their emergency unemployment benefits since Dec. 28. Credit: Getty

With Congress at an impasse on extending assistance for the long-term unemployed, these federal benefits — a program that began under President George W. Bush in 2008 — ended on Dec. 28.

In the weeks since, more than 1.7 million Americans have lost their emergency unemployment compensation. On average, the program provided about $300 a week for someone who was out of work and had exhausted regular state benefits.

Saturday on NewsHour Weekend we profile Selmar-Steed, a 38-year-old former medical biller living in the suburbs of Atlanta.


Trista Selmar-Steed, a 38-year-old former medical biller, lost her emergency unemployment benefits in December. Credit: NewsHour Weekend

“I try not to let [unemployment] dampen my spirits,” she said. “I feel sorry for those who don’t have a spouse or someone to assist them in paying their bills. I don’t know how I would take it then.”

As part of our coverage of the long-term jobless, we wanted to hear from others like Selmar-Steed. We gathered personal stories from Americans who lost their emergency unemployment benefits since the turn of the new year.

NewsHour received hundreds of submissions from people age 23 to 68, from Aurora, Colo., to New York City.

Here are a few of those stories.

My name is Rocco, and like Trista, I too have been suffering from the loss of federal benefits. While my wife goes to work, I’ve been staying at home to conserve fuel. I’ve been losing weight from eating less, so my family has more on their plates. It feels like the government and big business expect more and more while trying to give back as little as possible. Soon my internet connection will be shut off and since most companies don’t offer paper applications, how will I find work then? Walking around for miles a day, asking for an application that may or may not be available?

– Rocco, 34

I was laid off my job of nearly 23 years on May 31, 2013. I worked a temporary assignment until July 12, 2013. I received my first check from Illinois unemployment at the end of July.

I was forced to give up my apartment of 8 years at the end of August, and moved in with a family member. In exchange for rent, I helped her with her children, buy groceries, cook and clean. I was able to pay for things necessary to my job search like a cell phone, internet, gas, and train fare. This was working well until my unemployment ran out at the beginning of February, 2014.

She will be using money she doesn’t have to cover my cell bill, and I won’t be able to contribute for groceries until my food stamps kick in. I will have no money for gas or internet when the meager amount in my bank account runs out.

To add to this, the only time my phone rings these days is when the bill collectors are calling. I just missed having my car go into repossession because I got a loan from another family member.

At the height of my tenure with the company I originally worked for, I was earning $41,000 annually.

I am now in poverty.

– Jennifer, 45, Chicago

I have never collected unemployment before, but it was necessary after an injury turned into long-term unpaid medical leave and sudden termination. I was one week into my first extension when the benefits ended. I have depleted my savings and retirement funds to keep this household afloat. We have eliminated every possible expense, but the necessities still must be paid: electricity, heat, car insurance, property taxes, food and medicine are all inflexible items that we can’t control.

Now, the inability to pay these bills puts my family in jeopardy. If I was able to work I would. At 54, I am at my wits’ end.

– Beth, 54, Hamilton, N.J.

I was laid off in May of 2013 because of Headstart budget cuts for 2013 — I was a Headstart teacher for seven years. On Sept. 1, my husband was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer so we also lost his income. He obtained (Supplemental Security Income) for two months and died in November. I have looked for jobs and sent resumes and filled out applications but never hear anything back. I am 58 years old and have no income or insurance.

I can get no subsidies from Obamacare as I have no income and Tennessee is a state which did not expand Medicaid. Luckily, my house and vehicle are paid for. I leave the house rarely, am visiting food pantries and never pay retail for anything. I may have to take money out of retirement if his life insurance is denied because the policy is less than two years old. I pray daily the life insurance comes through and that money will pay the bills until I can take out of 401K without a penalty.

I tell others I have retired, as I feel strongly that I will not be able to find a full-time job with benefits. Thanks for listening.

– Vicki, 58, Maryville, Tenn.

The cut of my unemployment extensions has been crucially affecting my family. I need to provide for my son who is diagnosed with autism and my baby girl. I’ve sold a bunch of my belongings to try and put food on the table, to buy clothes for my kids, to pay rent and utilities and to put gas in my vehicle to go job hunting. Not having money for necessities takes a toll on my mind. Depression has kicked in. It really takes a toll on one’s self-esteem and confidence to move forward.

I’ve applied to countless amounts of jobs, only to not even get a call back. I’ve gone from construction site to construction site, only to be told they are not hiring. Finally, I got at least a positive call back from a company telling me they will call me to work in a couple of weeks. I am crossing my fingers and praying.There are millions of people in my situation or even worse. Congress needs to pass the unemployment extensions because people are losing everything.

– Alejandro, 30, San Jose, Calif.

The company I worked for lost its Government contract at the end of March 2013. I had a small, 12-week severance package. My unemployment ended in December 2013. I still have not been able to find another job. Unlike many of my friends that I used to work with, I do not have a husband or second source of income. I have nearly run through my savings because I received $1600 per month in unemployment benefits, but my average monthly bills came to nearly $2400 per month. I could manage my bills and even put some aside while I was working, but after I lost my job I had to cut back.

I stopped going out, I cut my cable to the basic to keep my home phone and internet so I can look for a job. I stopped driving to as many places as possible to save on gas. I went back to school for one semester so that I could refresh some skills that I did not use during my past few jobs, and for a little while I did some volunteer work for the same reason. I don’t do that anymore either. I am just about to cash in my 401K so it will be several more years of working — if I can ever find a job — before I can retire.

My parents have been helping me with my bills where they can, but they are nearing retirement and have their own bills that they have to pay. It isn’t that I don’t want to work. I miss working. I have three college degrees, but because of that combined with my age (42), I am finding it hard to find even entry-level jobs. I applied and was turned down for food stamps because I do not have any children. I have come to the conclusion that I may have to move to find a job, and I am okay with that, but I’d like to know how I am supposed to pay for a move.

I honestly do not know what I am going to do when my savings runs out.

– Dana, 42, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I am a science teacher. Hiring in the middle of a school year is tough — it’s a job that usually you get hired at a certain time for the next school year. I apply for every temporary position that comes open, but they’re hard to get. I’m also a single mom so I really needed my unemployment desperately until I get hired, hopefully, when the hiring starts back up for the next school year.

My credit cards are now maxed out and I don’t know what to do. No other jobs actually want to hire me because they know I will leave if I get a new teaching position. I’ve always paid my taxes and now when I truly need the unemployment, it’s not there.

– Amy, 33, Tennessee

I have been working and paying taxes since I was 14. I am now 46, and have been laid off of my job. The job market has been tough, and the employers seem to be looking for younger people to employ. I have always worked, and this is embarrassing to me to have to depend on my government for help. Now that I am in need, they have let me down.

I would be homeless if not for my sister-in-law. I am staying in her basement, but have no funds for anything. I have sold all my belongings just to be able to afford to eat, and help with some of the bills. I’m at a loss for words.

– Anthony, 46, Aurora, Colo.

At my last job, I made roughly $50,000 per year and lived in a condo in downtown Atlanta with a beautiful view. My mother lived with me and my dog. I was able to provide for the both of them. I now live in a low-income apartment complex that’s half the size and price of where we lived before. I say this to bring to light the fact that I am a go-getter and hard worker who, from age 13 has worked and has been relatively independent. I’ve absolutely adjusted my lifestyle and standard of living to try to meet the bare minimum of what most consider “just getting by”. I’m truly thankful for the little that I have, understanding that there are people who are in far worse circumstances than I. And I feel for them too.

On Dec. 28, the $307 I had been receiving once per week stopped. I wasn’t able to pay rent for January and now February. I’m being evicted. I have no food. I applied for food stamps on Feb. 10 and I’m waiting to hear back from them with a decision.

One of my questions is how is virtually crippling the unemployed helping unemployment? The irony in this is that I was offered a temp job for a week about 20 miles from my home. But I didn’t have $5 to pay in bus fare per day to get there. I could go on and on with stories of how much of a struggle it’s been for me but I’ve pretty much lost hope that anyone would even care. I do believe there is light at the end of my tunnel. I have career ahead of me, I just need to make it through this storm.

Hopefully human instinct will kick in and the government will come to their senses.

– Ebony, 34, Atlanta, Ga.

Since losing my benefits we have exceeded borrowing from friends and family to keep us in our townhouse. I will be getting evicted come the first of March because we don’t have enough to cover it. I have gotten notices from the electric to be shut off. We are raising two grandchildren and can barely buy diapers. We did get food stamps for them but they have went from $301 to $125 due to government cuts.

My husband only makes 10 dollars an hour and drives 30 miles round trip, so it’s taking all we have just to keep the Jeep filled with gas. We stopped going to church and all to save gas. We are homebodies now, afraid to use what gas we have. We save two kids from getting put in foster care just to be hit like this. It’s just a constant trap they try to keep you from receiving any help! I’m so disgusted when my 12-year-old asks me why we don’t have snacks anymore, or why are we eating so much rice, etc.

It’s sad to be an American right now.

– Karen, 50, York, Pa.

We’re asking: How has the loss of unemployment benefits affected you or someone close to you? Please submit your story using this simple form or share your thoughts the comment section below.

Support PBS NewsHour: