Donna Davies panics every time the doorbell or telephone rings. She lives in constant fear of being approached by yet another person to whom she owes money.
The reason: She doesn’t have any.
“I bite my nails and my hair is starting to fall out,” said Davies, 40, a resident of Boston. “I am literally afraid of the doorbell because I think it’s the sheriff with another court notice or our landlord with the eviction notice.”
After being laid off from her position as Macy’s group sales manager in March 2008, Davies and her husband were forced to sell their car, drain their 401Ks and max out their credit cards. Now, unable to afford preschool for their 3-year-old daughter Annabelle, the family is surviving on food stamps.
Davies, classified as long-term unemployed — or jobless for 27 weeks or more — is not alone in this predicament.
Based on recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the national unemployment rate in May 2010 peaked at 9.7 percent, increasing the overall tally to 15 million unemployed people. Of these, the long-term unemployed comprise a whopping 6.8 million nationwide, making up 46 percent of unemployed people.
In 2008, President Obama signed legislation into law, providing unemployment benefits to help those affected. The benefits were split into four tiers of varying length depending on individual states’ needs.
While all states qualified for Tiers I and II, Tier III required a state to have a three-month average unemployment rate of at least 6 percent, and Tier IV qualification was based on a three-month average unemployment rate of at least 8.5 percent.
With more than a third of the American population being categorized as long-term unemployed, an increasing number of people have exhausted their unemployment insurance, which in some states lasted up to 99 weeks.
Close to or having already received their last unemployment check, millions of long-term unemployed, like Davies, are now on the brink of eviction and hunger.
Because an economic turnaround seems unlikely in the coming weeks, people everywhere are demanding the creation of a Tier V, which would extend unemployment benefits until the end of 2010.
Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., voiced their support for the creation of a Tier V and expressed their commitment to the generation of more jobs.
“Unemployment insurance is a critical safety net for our nation’s workers,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “Unfortunately, the intense focus on the federal budget deficit and opposition from certain senators is making it increasingly difficult to even maintain the current level of benefits, much less increase the number of weeks of coverage.”
Republican leaders such as Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Congressman John Boehner of Ohio did not respond to calls and e-mails.
On April 15, Obama signed into law HR 4851, which extended filing dates for unemployment benefits until June 2. However, the bill made no mention of those who had already received their final lifeline. It also sparked a heated debate among policymakers, bringing to the forefront the concerns of millions of long-term unemployed.
Paula Drabb, of Trenton, N.J., attended a jobs march on Wall Street on April 29. For hours, she stood in solidarity with hundreds of other New Yorkers, holding a signboard demanding more jobs.
Drabb’s son Sam, a former employee of AT&T, lost his job of four years without a warning. In the ensuing two and a half years, Sam has unsuccessfully applied for several jobs.
Paula Drabb, 64, is happy to use her Social Security to support her son and his family. What worries her, however, is the increasing marital problems between Sam and his wife, Dawn, a hairdresser who is working seven days a week to make ends meet.
Drabb fears that 32-year-old Sam, who received no unemployment benefits, could be suicidal.
“I’m terrified because it could be only a matter of a time before he does himself in,” she said.
Dr. John Draper, director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, revealed that one in every three callers tends to cite economic issues as a cause for distress. The Lifeline has also experienced a 50 percent increase in the total number of calls between 2008 and 2009.
“The loss of a job or of a home doesn’t only have immediate effects,” Draper said.
The loss of work can cause panic six months to a year after being laid off, in the form of financial struggles, relationship problems, divorce or substance abuse, he said.
Known as a “chain of adverse events,” such situations make a person more susceptible to mental trauma, which in turn has an unfolding, domino effect on individuals, families and communities.
According to Draper, people choose to end their lives when they feel psychological pain such as humiliation, hopelessness, shame, a loss of identity or a lack of belonging.
Unemployed people — those who lose a lifetime’s worth of savings, can no longer afford basic amenities or feel like a burden on their families — are at a higher risk.
Victoria Leichsenring-Moore, 53, previously employed as a Computer Aided Drafter and Designer in Corona, Calif., believes her life resembles a jail sentence without the option of parole.
After being handed the pink slip in October 2007, she has sent out more than 1,000 resumes. Still unemployed, she has drained all 99 weeks of unemployment insurance and is now barely surviving on $30 a week.
“I feel worthless and deeply depressed,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I was dead.”
Brian Maxey, a licensed master social worker and Manhattan’s regional director at the Institute for Family Health, reports a surge in the number of unemployed people — with no history of mental health issues — seeking mental help.
“When people lose their jobs, homes and insurance, depression or anxiety can really begin to manifest itself,” he said.
Having recently seen “a homeless person waiting for help next to a man in a suit,” Maxey believes the economy has had equally devastating effects on people from all walks of all life.
Maxey has also encountered several people such as Leichsenring-Moore who are neither insured nor qualify for public health insurance, and must be placed on a sliding scale fee.
“People get really frustrated when they find out that they’re making nothing and yet they’re not eligible for public health insurance,” Maxey said.
Gloria Stephens agrees.
When her 18-year career in the wine industry came to an end, Stephens received $765 per month as unemployment insurance, placing her $76 over the threshold for California’s welfare assistance.
“The stress of having no money to pay bills, bill collectors calling, losing a job offer to an unsatisfactory credit report and the ever-enlarging employment gap” has left Stephens crippled by anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia, but without the funds to seek help.
Stephens, 56, of Windsor, Calif., is further angered by allegations that the long-term unemployed are languishing in free money and adding extra pressure on taxpayers nationwide.
Eileen Fowler, 57, from Cape Cod, Mass., is equally infuriated by such accusations.
According to Fowler, no one would willingly give up a job to sit home and watch TV.
“Who in their right mind would want to be laid off, lose a home, a car, many of your belongings that you built up over the years just to collect a check for maybe half of what you earned while working?” she asked.
Based on his interactions with the unemployed, Brian Maxey agrees.
“You would be surprised — most unemployed people out there don’t want services for free,” he said. “They want to pay for and contribute to the services they’re receiving.”
Raising their voices
After being laid off in December 2006, Donalee King, of San Diego, has spent more than 50 hours a week frantically searching for jobs.
“Sometimes I waited until security guards were gone and businesses were closed before I went back and slipped my resume under doors,” she admitted.
While her persistence proved futile, King began suffering from panic attacks, uncontrollable crying and severe depression.
Watching senators and congressmen stall over decisions that gave unemployed Americans just enough money to feed themselves and maintain a roof above their heads, King began her advocacy work.
On Facebook, she became Paladinette, “The Unemployed Zealot,” an advocate for the long-term unemployed, and also created a radio show and blogging website with the aim of channeling people’s brewing frustration in a positive direction.
Fearful that unemployed people denied aid for any longer would translate to an epidemic of homelessness, King began actively rallying Congress and the Senate to create a Tier V.
Between April 29 and May 3, she participated in a cyber protest called M-A-Y-D-A-Y S.O.S FAX ATTACK against key figures in Washington D.C., including Obama; Vice President Biden; Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.; and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
“Rampant unemployment, leading to homelessness and provoking crime, can create a social holocaust,” King said. “Is that the America that we want? I don’t think so.”