photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

When the Kindness of Strangers is Not Enough

In Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the character Blanche Dubois famously declared, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Her line came to mind this week when I read a front page story in The New York Times. “99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation.” The article reports on the “jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves ‘99ers,’ because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.”

One of them, Alexandra Jarrin, a 49-year old woman who only 2 years ago was director of client services earning $56,000 at a small company in the New York area and was pursuing an M.B.A., lost her job in 2008. After her 99 weeks of unemployment benefits expired this summer, she moved into a motel room in Vermont with money donated by friends that paid for a one week stay. The story continues:

Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.

“I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless,” she said.

Last year she moved to Brentwood, Tenn., south of Nashville, in search of work. After initially trying to finish her M.B.A. program remotely, she dropped out because of the stress from her sinking finances. She has applied for everything from minimum-wage jobs to director positions.

She should have been evicted from her two-bedroom apartment several months ago, but the process was delayed when flooding gripped middle Tennessee in May. In mid-July, a judge finally gave her 10 days to vacate.

Helped by some gas cards donated by a church, she decided to return to this quiet New England town, where she had spent most of her adult life. She figured the health care safety net was better, as well as the job market.

She contacted a local shelter but learned there was a waiting list. Welfare is not an option, because she does not have young children. She says none of her three adult sons are in a position to help her.

A friend wired her $200 while she was driving from Tennessee, enabling her to check into a motel along the way and helping to pay for her stay here. But Ms. Jarrin doubts that much more charity is coming.

“The only help I’m going to get is from myself,” she said. “I’m going to have to take care of me. That has to be through a job.”

Ms. Jarrin is not alone. As of July there were 14.6 million recorded unemployed persons in the United States, with the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) at 6.8 million. And there are strong indications that many of those jobs are not coming back. The safety net, which assumes that individuals will find new jobs, was based on different economic assumptions and has done all that it can. Now millions of families desperately depend on the kindness of strangers – their elected officials in Washington. It is unreasonable to expect our government to extend unemployment benefits indefinitely. But how are we as a nation going to handle what might be millions of other Americans who soon may become “99ers,” and who may never find work again?