The Long, Anxiety-Ridden Journey of Being Jobless

VIDEO: NPRs Scott Simon took time on his show to honor those who are out of work.
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Beverly Wiatrak is one face of an unsettling trend: She's 32 with two kids and a college degree and has been unemployed for a little more than a year.

Like Wiatrak, who worked previously as a project manager for 13 years, nearly half of those looking for work have been out of a job for at least six months. This Labor Day, President Obama kicks off a week of events to prove that he is determined to rebuild the economy and create jobs, which Wiatrak hopes happens sooner rather than later.

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"The economy is moving in a positive direction, jobs are being created; they're just not being created as fast as they need to, given the big hole that we experienced," Obama said Friday. "We're moving in the right direction. We just have to speed it up."

In previous downturns, job hunters bounced back far more quickly. In 1976, it took less than 10 weeks on average; in 1983, 12 weeks; and in 1994, 10 weeks. This recession, on average, it's taking nearly 26 weeks to find a job.

"[It's] been a long stretch, yes," Wiatrak said. "[I] really didn't expect it to be such a long-term thing. I assumed it would take a month or two. Maybe three [to find a new job.] I certainly didn't expect it to take a year."

Unemployed: 300 to 400 Job Applications

The Labor Department reported last week that the economy shed 54,000 jobs in August and the unemployment rate ticked upward to 9.6 percent.

Wiatrak said she has applied to 300 to 400 jobs since she was laid off in August 2009. A file on her laptop is crammed with rejections from a frustrating job hunt.

Diane Swonk, chief economist of Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, said employers were not hiring because of fear and uncertainty about the recession.

"They want to commit to an employee," she said. "They want an employee who is going to stick around. And they are afraid they will lose an employee that's highly qualified to a higher bidder down the road."

Wiatrak supports her family on unemployment benefits, which amount to $971 every two weeks. Pride kept her from getting food stamps until her savings ran out two months ago.

She said it was difficult to apply for them. "You are afraid someone might see you," Wiatrak said. "[When] you are in the store, you don't want people to know."

Economist Swonk said everyone, not just the unemployed, are affected during a recession.

"Not only does it increase the costs to society of supporting the unemployed, it also increases the anxiety of those who are employed, which means they're going to save more and spend less, which makes the recovery weaker," she said.

For Wiatrak, life has been about living without. "There's no going out for dinner," she said. "We look to friends for hand-me-downs for clothes. Financial problems affect my marriage. They are affecting my children. They affect every aspect of my life."

Her concern is losing her home. Her block is dotted with homes for sale. "There's maybe five to seven homes that are going through foreclosure or homeowners close to foreclosure," Wiatrak said.

"You can't give up," she said. "Somebody's hiring out there. Somebody will give me a job."

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