During the Great Depression, thousands of the suddenly jobless found themselves a new line of work: selling apples on street corners. These fruit sellers, with their heart-tugging signs–“Unemployed Buy Apples 5 c Each”—are an enduring image of bad times. There are no apple sellers on street corners (yet) as we continue to slog through our own great downturn. But the numbers of people trying to live on reduced or nonexistent income are staggering. Today 14 million people are unemployed, more than 9 million people want to work full-time but can only find part-time employment, and 2.5 million would like a job but aren’t even looking, many because they’re simply too discouraged.
One result of this economic calamity is a burgeoning number of foreclosed homes, and the highest number of people living in poverty since the Census Bureau started tracking the poverty rate 52 years ago. But what the statistics don’t tell are the stories of how Americans make do month after month, or year after year, in straitened circumstances. So we are turning to you, DoubleX readers, to tell us what it’s like when your income dwindles or dries up. What are the first things to go, and what are the things you can’t bear to give up? Do you supplement your grocery shopping with trips to the food bank? Have you sold your valuables? Do you score free stuff off Craigslist? Have you joined the underground, or cash, economy? Do you barter? Are the kids on their own when it comes to paying for college? Have you signed up for Social Security earlier than you wanted to?
In 2009, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University started tracking a group of unemployed Americans to see how they would fare over time. Not surprisingly, the conclusions from the latest survey are dismal. Many have exhausted their unemployment benefits—a lifeline that replaces about 50 percent of the average worker’s income. They now assume their new, lower standard of living will be permanent. Of those people surveyed who have found new jobs, for just over half this good news comes with an asterisk: Their new job pays less, in many cases substantially less, than their old one.
All this has meant some radical changes in daily life. Till von Wachter, an associate professor of economics at Columbia, studies how disruption in employment affects people’s long-term earnings, job stability, and health (short answer: negatively). He says researchers can see the big picture effects of job loss. For example, the grim reaper makes an appearance in von Wachter’s research: Immediately following a lay-off, mortality rates spike among high-seniority males.
It’s harder for social scientists to capture the texture of the lives of those who continue to cope with financial duress. “The first thing you do is change your standard of living,” says Carl E. Van Horn, the director of the Rutgers center that is tracking the group of unemployed Americans. “You give up things you’d like to do, then give up on things you have to do. You don’t take vacations; you spend less on entertainment. Next is, you don’t go to the doctor, or you move in with family members. You sell possessions, borrow from family and friends. It’s a painful financial readjustment. People are trying to find a lifeline.”
Von Wachter says tracking these details of how people get by is an understudied area. “Are they shopping more efficiently, cooking more at home? How are they replacing their income with other sources?” He says such information about daily life is usually not available in survey data. “Moreover, we usually don’t have such a large group of people unemployed and exhausting their benefits,” he adds.
One tempting avenue for bringing in the maximum cash possible is to turn to the underground or informal economy. Edgar L. Feige, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been studying the underground economy for more than three decades and says that it’s exceedingly difficult to find hard numbers on how many people get by on income that’s unreported and therefore untaxed: “The underground economy is so difficult because you’re trying to shed light on economic activity that’s trying to defy observation,” he says. His research does show that when unemployment rises, so do the number of people working for cash and not reporting the income. The incentives for this are clear: reducing to zero the government’s pesky deductions from your take-home pay, and the ability to therefore underbid one’s tax-paying counterparts. Feige says the amount of such economic activity is enormous. He estimates that the gap between what the government is owed and what it gets is around $500 billion a year.
Here at DoubleX, we’d like you to fill in some of the blanks: Tell us what it’s been like to live on a fraction of what you used to make. Let us know what you realized you didn’t really need and what you’ve had to give up that you long for. Describe your most creative solutions to your economic situation. Share your most surprising discoveries about living on less. And give your best advice for others trying to make it.
Please send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. Because of the sensitive nature of what you might have to tell, we will only use your name if you specify we can. Thank you.