Unemployment Drops, But For Whom?

In the wake of news that the economy added 203,000 jobs and the unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent, Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon checks in with several long-term unemployed and underemployed Americans whom we heard from earlier this year.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. New unemployment statistics are out this week. The news sounds good. Unemployment dropped to a five-year low. But the average length that someone remains unemployed is over 37 weeks. So as 2013 draws to a close, we wanted to check in with some people we spoke with earlier this year who've struggled to find work - or enough of it - and see how they are.

Vinita Handa-Koller is a 52-year-old IT worker. When we spoke with her in March, she'd been out of work for nearly a year and was moving back with her parents.

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VINITA HANDA-KOLLER: My parents are letting me live in the room that I lived in when I was a kid. It's a small room. But it's good that I do have that option.

SIMON: Since then, she's managed to find work, though just 12 hours a week. But she saved enough by living with her parents and renting her home to get a small apartment.

HANDA-KOLLER: After a while, the 8-by-9 room that was OK when I was kid start - you know, sometimes I would feel like the walls were closing in. And I started to feel very down. And I just needed to get out, and get my own space.

SIMON: Vinita, this week's economic news struck many people as promising. And I wonder if you're optimistic about your future.

HANDA-KOLLER: To be honest with you, I've been - I feel like the universe is telling me to try my other passion, and that is the only way that I can try to be optimistic because...

SIMON: What's your other passion, Vinita?

HANDA-KOLLER: It's acting. I don't want to be, you know, rich and famous or anything or, you know, go to Hollywood or Bollywood, or anything like that. (Laughter) I just - I had taken some classes awhile back, and I just felt very much alive.

SIMON: You know, Vinita, I wish you well in all ways, but I do feel compelled to just remind you that there are an awful lot of struggling, starving young actors too.

HANDA-KOLLER: Yeah, but I feel very strongly about it and when you, you know, have a passion you have to give it a chance. Otherwise, I'm going to regret it.

SIMON: Yeah.

HANDA-KOLLER: I'm not giving up on IT. I'm still going to try to get IT jobs, but this is my backup plan.

SIMON: Bill Westerlund of Snow Hill, Md., was a property manager. But after a year of unemployment, he took a low-paying, part-time job doing custodial work at an automobile dealership while he looked for something better.

BILL WESTERLUND: It's lean. We paid our mortgage last week; I had $4 left in my checking account.

SIMON: Since then, his hours have increased, but he and his wife still struggle.

WESTERLUND: Things eased up over the course of the summer. We do side jobs and extra work, as it becomes available. But, of course, now that the season has changed, those type of opportunities have dried up; and it looks like December is going to be a very lean month.

SIMON: The holiday season too, isn't it?

WESTERLUND: Naturally, naturally. There's going to be no trips to our children. They won't be coming down here.

SIMON: Your kids live in New England, as I remember.

WESTERLUND: That's correct. And their times are hard up there as well. And to make a trip over the holidays is just not really feasible, at this point.

SIMON: How do you feel about the future?

WESTERLUND: Wary, a little uncertain. We're kind of - I hate to use this term - but we're kind of stuck in the situation that we're in right now until something major happens, which I don't really anticipate.

SIMON: Bill Westerlund of Snow Hill, Md.; and Vinita Handa-Koller of Rockville Center, N.Y.

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