Unemployed For More Than A Year? You're Not Alone

A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR found that nearly 5 million Americans have been unemployed for a year or more, with some parts of the population harder hit than others. Host Michel Martin speaks with NPR Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax, unemployed bus driver Vincent Brandon, and Ellen Wright, an underemployed paralegal.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, elections in the Ivory Coast were held this weekend. So, was the vote another step forward on the path to democracy or another disappointment for the strife-torn country? We'll try to find out later in the program.

But first, we want to look closer at the employment picture in this country, especially at those who've been out of work for a long time. Actually the most recent news about jobs has been good. The unemployment rate in the U.S. dropped to 8.6 percent in November, the first time it's dropped below 9 percent in quite some time. But that still means that more than 13 million people are still searching for jobs and many more are still underemployed.

Last night, President Obama acknowledged the frustration of many Americans on the CBS program "60 Minutes. "

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've gone through an incredibly difficult time in this country. And I would be surprised if the American people felt satisfied right now. They shouldn't feel satisfied. We've got a lot more work to do in order to get this country and the economy moving in a way that benefits everybody as opposed to just a few.

MARTIN: The Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR recently conducted a survey about the impact of long-term unemployment. The report shows that there are nearly five million Americans who've been unemployed for a year or more. The research also explored why some segments of the population are harder hit by joblessness than others.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon, once again, NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. We also reached out to the National Employment Law Project or NELP, that's a nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on behalf of low wage and unemployed workers, and they put us in touch with Vincent Brandon. He's currently an unemployed bus driver from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Also with us is Ellen Wright. She was a lab manager in Georgia and she's been unemployed since she was downsized in 2005. They're joining us as part of NPR's week-long series: Still No Job: Over A Year Without Enough Work. Welcome to you both actually, welcome to all of you. Thank you all for joining us.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

VINCENT BRANDON: Hello, Michel.

ELLEN WRIGHT: Hi.

MARTIN: Well, Marilyn...

WRIGHT: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you for coming. Marilyn, let me just start with you. I wanted to ask you where the key findings in this report?

GEEWAX: Well, there are three things I wanted to tell you about that really jumped out at me. First of all, this group is really hurting. These are people who, generally speaking, they've been out of work a year or longer. Only 13 percent are getting any unemployment benefits. They're really pretty much on their own. And the thing is, before - when they did have jobs, the great majority of people made $30,000 a year or less.

So, they started out pretty underpaid and now they have nothing. So, they're relying on friends, they're cutting back on things like medical care. About half of them say they have trouble just keeping a roof over their head or food on the table. So, this is a group in real distress.

Number two, who are they? Well, disproportionately, they're African-American. About 10 percent of the full-time workforce is African-American. But 27 percent of the long-term unemployed are black. So, that really sort of jumps out. And the other thing is they tend to be older, over 55. Only about 13 percent of full-time workers are over 55, but they're 25 percent of the long-term unemployed. So, that's pretty disproportionate.

And then the final thing I wanted to talk about is that it's clear from what people say that they're willing to do almost anything to get employed again. They're willing to switch fields, retrain, take a night shift, work weekends, these are not people saying I'm just going to sit here and hope something comes to me. They're actively trying to find jobs and they're willing to make sacrifices to make it work, any job.

MARTIN: Ellen, let me start with you. First, let me just say, I'm so sorry for what you're going through.

WRIGHT: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: And I do want to emphasize again that you were downsized. This was not an issue of your performance on the job. It was a takeover, an event - a familiar story to many people. You're not African-American, you are white but you are part of that over 55 group. And you have made it clear, as I understand it, that you're willing to do just about anything to find a job. I just wanted to ask you when did you realize that this was going to be a tough road to hoe in finding another job?

WRIGHT: I knew it from the get go. I knew that I was going to be a beginner in a new field and I was older. People were going to look at me with my previous job experience and wonder why I wasn't going back into my old field. It was just going to be difficult from the very start.

MARTIN: Why did people think you should be going back into your old field? It was just kind of an assumption?

WRIGHT: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And are there any jobs in your field, in your area? Let me just ask the question then since people are asking you that. Why aren't you going back into your old field?

WRIGHT: Which field are you talking about?

MARTIN: The lab management.

WRIGHT: The lab field.

MARTIN: Lab field.

WRIGHT: No, not really, they have gone heavily into technology and they are downsizing and going to the mega labs. The big question in Lab Corp(-type labs. So, no, those jobs are disappearing as well.

MARTIN: So, you feel like your field is contracting?

WRIGHT: My old field, yes.

MARTIN: Your old field, yeah. Vincent, let's bring you into the conversation. Let me just say I'm sorry to you as well for what you're going through. It has to be difficult.

BRANDON: It is. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And I understand that you are African-American, so you're part of a group that has been particularly hard hit, although you have not been unemployed as long as Ellen. In fact, it's been less than a year. But I wanted to ask, you know, what steps have you been taking to find another job? I take it that you don't feel that the field you were in before is the one that you want to stay in.

BRANDON: That's correct. I decided to go back to school. I'm taking training in Web design, specifically to become more marketable to youth advocacy, nonprofits. I've worked in the field before and I just wanted to return to a love that I had working in the community, working with young people.

MARTIN: How did you figure out Web design was the way to go?

BRANDON: Well, it's something that young people are interested in, but a lot of, you know, in areas that I've lived in, those are skills that young people don't have and are not - don't have access to, o learning. So, I wanted to be in a position to be able to train young people to do that.

MARTIN: We're talking about the impact of long-term unemployment. The Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR recently offered a report exploring why some Americans are disproportionately affected by unemployment. With us are NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Also with us are Vincent Brandon, that's who was talking just now; and Ellen Wright, who are both searching for work.

Marilyn, you heard that both of them said and Ellen are trying to train for new fields. How effective is that as a strategy? Is it proving effective?

GEEWAX: Well, you really have no choice. In many cases, where if you're being downsized and your field is shrinking, you do need to retrain. But it can be hard unless you combine that with the willingness or an ability to move as well. The one thing that did come out in this study is that only 44 percent of people who were long-term unemployed said they could relocate to another state. Well, you know, that's...

MARTIN: How come, why can't they move?

GEEWAX: ...that's pretty understandable in this housing market. Your home value may have plunged a great deal. It's very hard to sell a house. I mean, some people in some communities they're - they really don't have an option to sell their house because it's - they'd take such a huge loss. And then if you move to another city, you've got all the problems of, you know, finding a new apartment, you have to put down a deposit, pay the utilities. It's very expensive to move.

So, people tend to be trapped in their current location. So if you retrain and you're in a smaller community where the jobs just aren't available, then you're really in a tough situation. So, it's really hard. You have to put together the whole package of being able to move, retrain, and take - here's another tough thing is sometimes you need unpaid internships to get a foothold into the new industry.

MARTIN: Well, Vincent, what about you? Have you considered looking in places other than the Pittsburgh area for work, Pittsburgh being where you are now?

BRANDON: It's not an option for me right now. I have a five year old daughter who is here in Pittsburgh and I can't really, you know, leave out of this area and leave her here.

MARTIN: And still be the parent you want to be?

BRANDON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Ellen, what about you?

WRIGHT: No. We have a farm here. We have family in the area, elderly parents. We have too much money invested. We could never replace what we have here.

MARTIN: So, you feel you'd be worse off if you left the area?

WRIGHT: Yes.

MARTIN: Well, before I let you two go - and thank you. And I understand that we've only just scratched the surface of what has to be a very difficult situation for both of you and, again, I want to wish you both the best.

BRANDON: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: How are you keeping your spirits up?

WRIGHT: For me, it's just innate optimism and my faith.

MARTIN: And, Vincent, what about you?

BRANDON: Same. One hundred percent faith. I mean, you know, I've found that I've gotten much closer to my Lord and Savior during this time. So, I mean, it's turned out to be a blessing for me, you know.

MARTIN: I understand. Marilyn, final thought for you. Are there any - I understand that these issues are being hotly debated, you know, on Capitol Hill right now, as well as at the White House. But are there anything being debated right now from a policy perspective that you think would specifically address the concerns that we've heard here today?

GEEWAX: Well, the thing is that there needs to be a lot of emphasis on job retraining and that's a local, state and federal issue in terms of we've got to have community colleges helping people with retraining and you have to be able to help people. There is an argument for whether or not to extend those unemployment benefits so that people can continue to try to have some help in moving and getting themselves back into the workforce, but it's very tough.

MARTIN: Well, what about this relocation issue that we talked about? In both cases, you have people who, for reasons of family, for reasons of housing, don't have the income, don't have the ability to move? Is there anything being discussed around that whole question of matching workers in one place to the jobs that might be available anywhere else? Is there any discussion of that?

GEEWAX: Honestly, ultimately, some problems just resist solution from government. These are personal decisions and people who have children, who have aging parents - a lot of these things just come down to you need to be able to create jobs all over the country so that people don't have to just move to big cities. That you can find jobs everywhere. And that's a tough issue, really hard.

MARTIN: To be continued. Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. She joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Vincent Brandon joined us from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ellen Wright joined us from Grantville, Georgia. They all spoke with us as part of NPR's series: Still No Job: Over A Year Without Enough Work. And to see the full results of the Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR report, please go to our website, NPR.org. I thank you all so much and my very best wishes to all of you.

BRANDON: Thanks, Michel.

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