Surviving Without a Safety Net
When I met Irv Feldman, he was hunched over a computer monitor at a state employment center, searching for a job. I soon learned he lives in a homeless shelter and his medical care, which doesn’t include hospitalization, comes from a limited county program.
Feldman, 60, a graduate of California State University, Northridge, works in a call center and on other temporary jobs while trying for full-time work in his field, information technology. He’s been out of the computer business for several years. “I’ve gone through a lot of mental anguish,” he said. “Before this, I estimated it took me a month to get a job; on occasion it might have taken three months. This time the recruiters I called weren’t in business. That was a scary thing.”
I came across Feldman when I visited the California Employment Department office in Pacoima, a blue-collar, overwhelmingly Latino community in Los Angeles’ northeast San Fernando Valley. The main task there is finding jobs. Another part of the department distributes unemployment benefits.
I visited the place to get away from the incessant writing and chatter about the politics of the Great Recession. It is a human and economics story more than a political one, and President Barack Obama seems to understand that. He shows his understanding by his frequent reading in his speeches and radio talks of portions of letters he receives from the uninsured and unemployed. He does a better job of telling us what’s happening in America during this trying time than most other politicians, journalists and the partisan political consultants who analyze the news on television.
The front lobby of the employment office was crowded with people waiting for interviews. In other parts of the building, there were job skill classes. So intense is the demand that the office began opening on Saturdays a year ago. California’s unemployment rate is 12.5 percent and Los Angeles County’s is 11.9 percent — both above the national figure of 9.7 percent.
“I worked for Sears for three and a half years,” Carlos Vega told me. “I was a washer and dryer repair technician and I was good at it.” Laid off, he has been looking for work for more than a year.
I met Alameda Holstein, who works for the Los Angeles City Department of Aging and is attaché to the employment office to help find jobs for those 55 and older. Her own department is being hurt by the recession. Unemployment and bad business conditions have cut city revenue, and big reductions in services are planned.
“They are very desperate,” she said of the job seekers. “They have not been in this position before. They are very much humiliated. … Very well-educated people are coming to me.”
It was Holstein who introduced me to Feldman, one of her clients. She suggested the three of us go out to lunch. “I’ll take you to the senior center,” she said.
The Alicia Broadous-Duncan Multipurpose Senior Center is one of 16 such facilities run by the city Department of Aging. It provides assistance in the form of housing, legal advice, meals at the centers and in homes, and transportation. This center, too, is living under the threat of recession-caused city budget cuts.
We sat down at a table with a few of the center regulars. One of them was Walter Thomas, who, during World War II, had been one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots who flew in the segregated Army Air Corps. We talked a bit about President Harry Truman, who desegregated the armed forces after the war, the beginning of the end of officially sanctioned segregation.
After hearing his story, Irv Feldman reached across the table and shook Thomas’ hand. “Thank you for your service, sir,” he said.
Holstein dropped me off at my car and then left with Feldman to try to find him a place to live.
My visit to the employment office gave me a close look at the fragility of the safety net. The anguish of people trying to hang on is truly moving. Help is needed right away.
Obama has made concessions to the right, which wants to destroy him. The left has written him off. With a good sense of what this country is about, he continues to steer a perilous course between them. His efforts to pass an economic stimulus, health care reform, a modest jobs bill and extensions of unemployment and COBRA benefits have left him weakened. In the end, he may leave the arena bloody and exhausted, but I believe he will succeed. The president is edging forward under a backbreaking load that was heaped upon his shoulders when he entered office. As Irv Feldman told Walter Thomas, the old Tuskegee airman, “Thank you for your service, sir.”Wait, before you go…
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