Follow a 99er Through the Press As the Money Runs Out

The long jobs crisis, with no end in sight, should prompt us to revisit older stories

Now that it’s certain that our leaders have gone all in on austerity, despite a 9.2 percent unemployment rate and an economy that looks like it’s sliding back into recession, it’s time for the press to redouble its focus on the unemployed, and particularly the long-term jobless. Actually, it was already long past time for that. Now it’s really time for it.

Alexandra Jarrin lost her solidly middle-class job in March 2008, shortly after the recession began, and hasn’t found work since. Her unemployment benefits ran out in March 2010 and she’s since lived off food stamps and the beneficence of friends and strangers and the state of Vermont, where she moved to take advantage of its universal health care program.

Her story has been told in The New York Times (twice), on CNN, in the Huffington Post (at least three times), and now in the Brattleboro (Vermont) Reformer. My first reaction was to wonder why this one woman has gotten so much media attention when there are millions of others like her out there. My second is that somebody ought to hire her to do PR. She’s apparently very good at it.

I’m glad she is. It’s useful to trace the story of one person struggling through the recession. Our habit as journalists is to do one-and-done stories on people like Jarrin, reporting their struggles as a snapshot in time that we don’t follow up on. That’s especially unfortunate on long-term stories like the terrible economy, which officially went into recession three and half years ago and has added few jobs in the two years since the recovery began. There are four or five unemployed people for every job opening. Meantime, it would cost about $30 billion annually to put a million people to work cleaning parks, painting roofs, or tutoring kids at $30,000 a year.

The particularly insidious thing about long-term unemployment is that the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to get a job. Employers are overtly discriminating against the unemployed in hiring decisions, forcing states to pass laws against it, as the Times reported last week. The median duration of unemployment in this recession is an all-time high of nine months, meaning such discrimination “disqualifies millions.”

All this means that barring a roaring recovery—and is there anybody out there who sees that in the next five years?—these folks may never again find work that fully uses their abilities, if they find work at all. So tell us their stories, and keep us updated periodically on them.

That’s what the NYT CNN, NPR, the HuffPost, and now the Brattleboro Reformer have effectively done, however accidentally. Let’s retrace her story in the press.

We first met Jarrin in November 2009 in the Times in a story on whether Congress would extend unemployment benefits. Jarrin was the anecdote on 99ers—people who were about to exhaust their extended unemployment benefits:

Alexandra Jarrin, 48, was laid off in March 2008 from her job in New York as a director of client services. As she searched widely for a job, moving back and forth between New York and Tennessee, she received aid of more than $400 a week that, she said, just barely ”kept my head at the waterline.”

But her extensions ran out early last month and in subsequent weeks, as Congress deliberated, her life fell apart. She has just started receiving what will be 14 extra weeks of aid under the new law, but faces eviction from her apartment in Brentwood, Tenn. ”There’s no way I can recover now, I’m too far behind,” she said.

In August 2010, the Times profiled Jarrin on page one. By then, her unemployment benefits had run out five months earlier, and she had moved back to Vermont, for the health care and the better job market and because that’s where she “had spent most of her adult life.” She was now living in a motel:

“Barring a miracle, I’m going to be in my car,” she said…

She has applied for everything from minimum-wage jobs to director positions.

To make things even more miserable, we find out Jarrin has $92,000 in student loans for an education she’s found is now “basically worthless.” Student loans, unlike other forms of debt, can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

Four months later, Jarrin turned up on NPR’s “All Things Considered” in a package on the long-term unemployed, where we find out she went without food for a while before food stamps kicked in.

I just started to apply for entry-level positions, service positions, every fast food. I’ve applied everywhere.

A week later, CNN did a spot on Jarrin, who had organized a letter-writing campaign to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the plight of the 99ers. This time we find she’s sent out more than a thousand applications with no success and had $5 left in her wallet and $46.77 in her checking account. It aired twice. Here’s the anchor seguing immediately after Jarrin’s discussion of poverty and despair:

FEYERICK: Wow, just heartbreaking. Friday afternoon Jarrin delivered more than 200 letters to Senator Sanders’ Brattleboro, Vermont office. We’ll see if they make a difference.

There’s news, and there’s news interpreted by comedian George Wallace. There he is. He’s up next. That’s the way I see it.

Nice segue, CNN.

In March, Michael Thornton wrote about Jarrin in The Huffington Post, reporting that she was days away from homelessness and that her health had deteriorated:

I have one more night here that is paid for after tonight. I have to be out by noon on weds if not paid. The loan company has called me all day long about my car. They are relentless. I am so stressed out that the medical tests they tried to do today couldn’t be done. They are trying to do a glucose tolerance test but you are supposed to remain calm. I don’t remember calm and what it feels like.

Thornton followed up in June and filled in some more details on why Jarrin hasn’t been able to find work:

“A few places that seemed interested were no longer interested when they asked for my salary history.” She’s willing to work for substantially less than she has made in the past, but that presents its own challenges, “Once they see I have made a considerable amount of money in the past they are no longer interested. One company wouldn’t set up an interview until I gave them my past salaries and told them how much I wanted to earn. That puts you in a difficult position because you don’t know how they will perceive what you are asking for if it is so much less than you have earned previously. One person asked why I would be looking for a job in fast food when I held a substantial position in a corporation.”

Yesterday, the Brattleboro Reformer weighed in on its down-and-out neighbor, who it says will have run out of money to pay for her Motel 6 room by now. Jarrin has survived without unemployment or a paycheck through the help of strangers who have also struggled through long-term unemployment.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have the cat to talk to,” she said. “If I didn’t have her I would have committed suicide back in Tennessee. But I couldn’t justify abandoning her again.”

Unless someone comes to her aid she’ll have to be out of her motel room by noon, back into her car, unless someone comes to repossess that. Then, Jarrin said she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

It’s hard to find a silver lining here. So hard that if there is one, it’s that Jarrin’s health has deteriorated to the point that she may be able to get disability soon.

Jarrin is a single anecdote, and there are millions more out there.

All you reporters who’ve profiled the jobless or used them as anecdotes over the last three-plus years: Now’s a good time to track those folks down and tell us what became of them.

(hat tip to Kat Aaron)

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,