America's Jobless Turn To Depression, Dependency

More than half of the nation's unemployed are have turned to friends and family for some form of financial support and another significant portion of job seekers say hard times have caused them to suffer from depression and elevated levels of anxiety. New York Times reporter Michael Luo discusses the recent findings and emotional residue lingering from the recession.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

You know what it's like to shop with a vengeance, but what about shopping with a conscience? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first, in the middle of a recession, which we are in now, it is normal to fixate on the monthly release of unemployment numbers. A good set of numbers can make the market soar. Bad numbers can cause the markets to dive. But those numbers aren't just numbers. They represent people, and a recent New York Times/CBS poll of unemployed workers has neatly captured what is on their minds and how unemployment is changing their lives.

New York Times reporter Michael Luo co-wrote the story on the poll, and he's with us today. Welcome to the program or welcome back, I should say.

Mr. MICHAEL LUO (Reporter, New York Times): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Michael, you start off the piece saying that more than half of the nation's unemployed workers have borrowed money from friends or relatives since losing their jobs. An equal number have cut back on doctor visits or medical treatments, because they are out of work. And almost half have suffered from depression or anxiety. Were you surprised by this?

Mr. LUO: Yeah, I wasn't necessarily surprised, but I think, taken all together, the findings really do capture the depth of the trauma from unemployment. And I think that really impressed me and moved me and saddened me.

MARTIN: You go on to talk about how a quarter of those polled have been threatened with foreclosure or eviction and a quarter have received food stamps. The number that we use - the sort of 10 percent figure is shocking enough - but I wonder if perhaps one of these other figures isn't more telling about how this recession is really affecting people. I mean, if you would have picked sort of one thing that people talked to you about that really shook them to their core what do you think it would be?

Mr. LUO: I think the one about when we asked people are you afraid that you are in danger of falling out of your current social class. Nearly half of the people said that, and that - I think, that really goes to the heart of the level of fear that's going on out there in the country, especially as unemployment drags on for a lot of people. I mean just the idea that you could go from middle class to working poor or working poor to below that, that just really captures a fear that's out there.

MARTIN: You also write that nearly half of the adults surveyed admitted to feeling embarrassed or ashamed most of the time or sometimes, as a result of being out of work. And you say, perhaps unsurprisingly given the traditional image of men as breadwinners, men were significantly more likely than women to report feeling ashamed most of the time.

One of the things I'm curious about is why are they ashamed when they can read the same papers you do and realize that this unemployment is happening to a lot of people? Why do you think that is? I know you're not a psychologist, but I'm interested in what people said.

Mr. LUO: I think there is still a sense, especially for men, that it's tied to their identity and they're provider, they're the breadwinner, and even though these people, or most of these people, were laid off not fired, there still is a sense that it must be tied to performance or it must be my fault when the reality is that's not the case for most people across the country at this point.

MARTIN: Given that so many people did report being ashamed or embarrassed, is it hard to get people to talk to you?

Mr. LUO: When I called people, I think they enjoyed just talking to somebody. Some people actually said to me I appreciate that somebody is asking about my life and my situation. In the end, a lot of people, I think, out there want others to know that they're not alone. And that is a big motivator for people. And another potential side benefit is sometimes when people read these stories, they want to help.

And that's what I found, the day the story ran that I'm being inundated with emails from people saying can I help this person. There was a person I quoted in the story who talked about how she was - her and her husband are saving quarters for diapers and a lot of people wanted to send her diapers. So that's been really gratifying.

MARTIN: The online package of items around the story includes video clips of unemployed individuals telling their stories. I just want to play a clip from one of them, a gentleman called Bill Grierson(ph).

Mr. BILL GRIERSON: Basically, you have no job. You have no money for any type of emergency situations, car repairs, things of that nature, so you just always hope that everything goes well. And you hate to have to go to people and ask for a loan from your family. But we had to have some help or whatnot. It's also been kind of, you know, depressing and/or sad not to be able to provide for your children the way you'd like to. They play sports and there are certain things they just haven't been able to do, equipment or whatnot. But again we have had some help and, you know, people volunteering to help with that.

MARTIN: That is hard. You know, you can hear in his voice. It's almost the words tumbling out. It's almost like he doesn't want to tell you.

Mr. LUO: It's really, really personal. We don't talk about money a lot of times. There's a taboo about, there's embarrassment, but also just this desire to vent and to share.

MARTIN: What other reactions you're getting? You mentioned there are people calling you now who are responding to specific needs that you wrote about in the piece. What are some of the other reactions?

Mr. LUO: There have already been a couple - the hundred comments by lunch time the day the story ran, the article. And we actually did get a call into the national desk from a law firm in Los Angeles asking about one person, Evan Gutierrez, who is in Los Angeles saying that they would like to interview him for a job. I don't really know if it actually fits him, but I passed it along to him.

And just a lot of people writing about their own experience. I mean, there are some sort of inevitable sort of detractors who are like, you needed a poll to know some of this stuff, I mean, it's not rocket science. But I really did think that it laid bare what's going on out there.

MARTIN: And finally, what do you think is the next step in this reporting? What else do you think you'd like to know?

Mr. LUO: I guess, like, sometimes, we hear about these horrible situations where just one disaster on top of another, losing their home, losing their car, medical issue, a funeral expense. And we think that that must be some kind of outlier. And sometimes even when I write these stories and I have an anecdote like that, my editor sometimes wonders if it's too, you know, extreme. But just randomly calling some of these people back, the number of people who really had one of those sort of when it rains it pours type situations was very common. And it made me think we need to dive deeper in that. There really is a lot of suffering going on out there, and I mean I just think that, you know, there are all kinds of things in this poll that will be interesting to explore.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you before I let you go, was there one story that you just cannot get out of your head? I know, as a journalist, sometimes there's a story that just keeps me up at night. And I just, for whatever reason, I just cant get it out of my head. Is there a story like that for you?

Mr. LUO: I think there are multiple examples of that. I mean, I think the woman Tammy Linville who is quoted and there's been a lot of feedback on her. She sort of had answered yes to feeling depressed or anxious, yes to seeing a mental health professional. She was dealing with her car breaking down. She had two small children, and there were just too many of those stories to even include.

MARTIN: Michael Luo is a reporter with the New York Times. He joined us from his office in New York. Michael, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LUO: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read the piece that we're talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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