‘Cellar dwellers’ trying to make ends meet

Marketplace Staff Nov 26, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Unless Congress votes to extend unemployment benefits again, some two million Americans will exhaust their supply by the end of the year. The news puts that much more pressure on job seekers in a weak labor market. New Hampshire resident Stacey Johnson helped bind books before she lost her job more than year ago. Her husband, Bob, and their son, are contractors, but work is hard to come by.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, Dan Gorenstein profiles a family that’s struggling while living on unemployment checks.

Dan Gorenstein: Stacey Johnson can’t remember who first came up with the term…

Stacey Johnson: “The cellar dwellers.”

That’s what Johnson and her husband call themselves. For the past few years, the couple and their 26-year-old son have lived in a corner of Johnson’s parents’s basement. There’s a toaster, microwave and mini fridge along one wall. Johnson jokes it’s their kitchenette. A black and fluorescent green curtain divides the room.

Johnson: : “Just to kind of add privacy between our side and where my son sleeps.”

When the three moved in, they planned to pay Johnson’s parents $30 a week, to help with rent. But that stopped in August after Bob exhausted all his benefits. Stacey’s $133-a-week unemployment check can only stretch so far. Her dad, a retired school maintenance man, has had to eat into his pension fund. And in a few days, Stacey’s check is likely to disappear. She says she’s not ready.

Johnson: Not yet. I’m not done yet. I’m not done with school. It can’t end yet. It’s got to stay there, so we can make it.

See, Johnson’s got a plan. At 50, she’s gone back to school. If Congress extends benefits again, she can wrap up her classes by next spring. At that point, she’ll try for a job in medical administration that pays from $12 to $15 an hour. If there’s no extension, Johnson’s plan gets thrown into the air. She feels like Washington politicians just don’t care.

Johnson: It sucks, because they’re not asking me. They’re not asking my husband, they’re not asking the people I go to school with. They have no right to make a decision on my life or anybody else’s life that is struggling about whether we should have money or not.

Johnson’s wondered if she should just forget it, and find some job, any job. But she says she sees better days ahead; she can feel it.

Stacey: My husband and I, we both some days, have our days where just feel like we’re never going to get out from underneath. The other one’s there to pick that one up and say, “Things are going to change, don’t know when, but it’s going to change.”

Until then, Johnson’s husband Bob says the couple holds on to their dreams.

Bob Johnson: I’d like to have my own place, my own door to walk through. Go to the store, be able to buy a name brand can of soup. Maybe have a motorcycle out in the yard. Not much.

For Johnson, she remembers a weekend trip to Maine. She wants that feeling again — walking across marshland to the ocean, looking out and away.

In Concord, N.H., I’m Dan Gorenstein for Marketplace.

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