Jobless Americans Plan Next Steps As Benefits Dry Up

National unemployment rose slightly to 9.8 percent in November, according to US government estimates. With extended federal unemployment benefits expiring and the US Senate having rejected a bill to extend them, social service agencies have been inundated with calls from jobless Americans seeking help. Host Michel Martin talks with Tim Zaneske, who is about to lose his unemployment benefits and Vince Smith, who runs a Homeless Services Center in Atlanta.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up: Do you ever find yourself watching members of Congress on, say, CSPAN and you say to yourself, I can do better than that guy? Well, writer Bill Thomas did just that. We'll find out how his adventure into congressional campaigning turned out. Here's a hint: He has plenty of time to talk to us about it. But that is later in the program.

First, though, to the much more serious topic of this country's ongoing challenge of high unemployment. New figures out Friday showed a disappointing bump in the jobless rate, to 9.8 percent, according to the Labor Department. That's up from 9.6 percent. Many of the unemployed - millions, in fact - are also coping with the possibility that they are receiving their last unemployment benefits check, or will see the end of their benefits in coming weeks.

That's because the White House and Congress have not yet agreed on another extension of the benefits program. It's a subject of intense, ongoing negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill as well as the White House, along with the question of whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year.

Democrats are pushing for an extension of unemployment benefits, but many Republicans are saying they will not vote for one without cuts elsewhere in government spending to pay for them. We wanted to know what facing the end of unemployment benefits means for people who have been out of a job for a long time, and are also now out of their unemployment benefits.

So we've called Vince Smith. He's the executive director of a homeless services center, called the Gateway Center, in Atlanta. It provides transitional and emergency housing. Also with us, Tim Zaneske. He's a former employee in the civil engineering field, and his unemployment benefits are scheduled to end this month. I welcome you both. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. VINCE SMITH (Executive Director, Gateway Center): Thank you.

Mr. TIM ZANESKE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Vince, let me just start with you. You know, in some ways the economy is getting better, and there are signs of that. But I'd like to ask what you're seeing on your end of it. Are you still seeing a lot of demand for your services?

Mr. SMITH: Actually, there are signs that some people tell us that the economy is getting better, but the reality of the world that I'm a part of is that we've seen a 20 percent increase in need for services. And my phone rings constantly, every day, with new homeless individuals in the Atlanta community, and others who are looking for a new start someplace, that are facing drastic situations.

MARTIN: I understand that you serve - you have a whole array of services that you offer, and that you serve about 500 people every day. Do you have a sense of how many people are in the situation that we are talking about, that they've exhausted their benefits?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I don't have exact numbers related to that. I do have anecdotal information. For instance, we have 100 women and children on the floor, on mats at the Gateway Center. And a number of those single mothers with children are there as a result of having lost jobs in the last year. And that number continues to rise, day by day, in the Atlanta area.

MARTIN: And when you say that they're on mats, they're on mats because all the beds have been exhausted.

Mr. SMITH: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: They're all filled.

Mr. SMITH: Every emergency shelter bed in the Atlanta area is full, and the Gateway Center has stepped up to the plate and said, we don't want women and children on the streets. And so we put mats down in an emergency setting, in our client engagement center, to give them safe housing for the night.

MARTIN: So Tim, let's turn to you. And how are you doing, by the way, Tim?

Mr. ZANESKE: We're holding our own for now. It's difficult.

MARTIN: How long have you been unemployed?

Mr. ZANESKE: I've been unemployed since June of 2009.

MARTIN: And what field were you in before you lost your job?

Mr. ZANESKE: I was in civil engineering field. I had moved up through the ranks, and I was more on the IT side of the civil engineering.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding you've now gone through all 26 weeks of state-covered unemployment benefits. Then you got an extension for 13 weeks. Then you moved on to federal coverage, which can run as long as 73 weeks. But it's my understanding that you're running out at the end of that. Is that correct?

Mr. ZANESKE: Yeah, I'm getting close to the end of that. And as a matter of fact, the tier that I'm on finishes up in about two weeks.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, how much are you getting with each check now?

Mr. ZANESKE: Each check is about 678. It covers two weeks.

MARTIN: Is that enough?

Mr. ZANESKE: No.

MARTIN: For two weeks, 678.50 for two weeks - is that enough? I understand that your core family right now is you, your wife, and your two kids. Is that enough?

Mr. ZANESKE: That's correct.

MARTIN: Is that enough?

Mr. ZANESKE: No, that's not enough. The amount of money coming in from unemployment, and then my wife's job misses the outgoing expenses by about $350 a month. And that's just in bills. That doesn't take in insurance for the cars or the house, utility payments or food.

MARTIN: So how are you making it?

Mr. ZANESKE: I pulled from my 401(k). In September, I made a 20 percent draw from my 40(k).

MARTIN: But you've got to pay taxes on that.

Mr. ZANESKE: I pay taxes on that. Yeah. Twenty percent of that goes to taxes, and then there's a 10 percent penalty next year when I do my income tax.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about how the expiration of federal unemployment benefits could affect millions of Americans in the coming weeks and months as Congress debates a jobless benefits extension. Our guests are Tim Zinesk - his unemployment benefits are scheduled to end this month; and also with us, Vince Smith of the Gateway Center. That's a center in Atlanta that offers an array of services to people who are without jobs and often also without homes as well.

So as I understand it, you're already facing a $350 a month shortfall, and this is double that. So now you'd be running a deficit of about $1,000 a month. What do you do?

Mr. ZANESKE: Well, for my situation, I don't have any other option but to take more money from my 401 - retirement. So I will continue to raid that, if I don't get a job, until it's gone.

MARTIN: How long do you think you can hold out?

Mr. ZANESKE: I might have six to eight months on that. But again, it's not the best situation because like you said, I'm paying taxes on it. So 20 percent of everything I pull out goes to taxes.

MARTIN: Tim, do you mind if I ask how you feel about the arguments that we've been hearing? I mean, the Democrats are saying look, people need this money right now. But the Republicans are saying - well, at least, one in particular; Scott Brown, a senator from Massachusetts, has taken a strong stance on this and obviously, he's been supported by the rest of the caucus - that they're saying, well, we'll vote for the extension, but only if there's a cut somewhere else. And what is your response to that?

Mr. ZANESKE: Well, where are they going to make the cut, and why are they holding out and trying to bargain against, you know, what the reasons are, why they're going to make the extension or if they're going to make the extension? If they don't do something about it, you're going to have - you've seen all the news reports about the millions of people that are going to be unemployed. Where do they think those people are going to go?

It's just going to be a bigger burden on the homeless shelters. Somebody's going to have to come up with that somewhere, or you're going to have a lot of people on street corners.

MARTIN: Vince, what are your thoughts here? I mean, the other argument here is that the government just can't continue to spend at the rate that it's been spending. And at some point, somebody has to say stop.

Mr. SMITH: We are faced with a tsunami of people who have worth and value and simply have - oftentimes - lost their jobs, as in Tim's case - no fault of their own. And the reality is that a government has to care about its citizens. And while certainly balanced budgets are critically important, Congress should be charged with the responsibility of, how do we meet the needs of our citizens in this terribly desperate economic situation?

MARTIN: Are people hearing about this potential loss of benefits? I don't know, however they're hearing about it - I don't know if you get a letter saying that your benefits are about to expire, or you're just expected to know. But I'm just wondering how people at the center are reacting to this news that's been sort of dominating the headlines over the last couple of days.

Mr. SMITH: There's a deep sense of anxiety and uncertainty among individuals who are calling - who are in, like Tim's situation, about to - believe they're about to lose their benefits. But the reality is that we also get calls every day - of people who are saying, at the end of the month, I'm going to have to be out of my house. I'm going to have to be out of my house next week during the holidays. I'm being foreclosed on. The apartment that I live in is being closed.

There are just so many different issues that are impacting the persons that I work with who - and many of them, unlike Tim, do not have a marketable skill. They were in entry level jobs, they were the first jobs to be - oftentimes - to be lost. And in the hospitality industry, it's the workforce that's the last to be brought back.

We don't see bright horizons in the world of which I'm a part, for the immediate future. And there is a sense of desperation and hopelessness that sort of becomes a pall over people's spirit.

MARTIN: Tim, I'm going to give you the final word here. You sound pretty good. I mean, I know we just met so you're probably not, you know, bearing your soul to me - and I respect that. But I'm just curious how you're holding it up - how are you holding up? You said you still feel optimistic so...

Mr. ZANESKE: I'm optimistic. We got, you know, we got a whole host of new government employees coming in the first of the year - a new governor and, you know, his staff. I'm optimistic that he can do something to help this state turn around. I'm optimistic that I'm going to get a job. I think I got a pretty good skill set that I can market.

The problem is, the jobs aren't there for me to market to. You know, I keep putting my name out there. I keep putting my resume out there. It feels like it's just going out in the wind like a flag on a pole in the middle of the desert. It's just flapping - and nobody's looking at it, nobody's reading it, nobody's wanting to know anything about it.

MARTIN: So you're saying that - your new governor is a Republican. Of course, Jennifer Granholm was term-limited, so she couldn't run again.

Mr. ZANESKE: Correct.

MARTIN: And your new governor will be...

Mr. ZANESKE: Rick Snyder.

MARTIN: Rick Snyder. And why are you optimistic about him?

Mr. ZANESKE: Fresh look at it. He comes from a business standpoint. He ran on the goal of running Michigan as a business, and not just as a government entity.

MARTIN: So you figure a fresh set of eyes at least gives - gives somebody else - new - a crack at it.

Mr. ZANESKE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. So - and it doesn't do me any good to worry or feel down about something that I can't control. I mean, it's wasted energy.

MARTIN: Well, we certainly wish you the very best. We hope you'll keep in touch with us, and let us know how you're doing.

Mr. ZANESKE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Tim Zaneske is looking for work in the civil engineering field, and he's also trained in IT. His unemployment benefits are ending this month. He was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan. Also w ith us, Vince Smith. He's the executive director of a homeless services center in Atlanta. It also offers other services. It's called the Gateway Center. He was kind enough to join us from Georgia Public Broadcasting. I thank you both so much for speaking with us, and my best wishes to you for the holidays at this very difficult time.

Mr. ZANESKE: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

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