Officially, 14.9 million people are unemployed. Thousands -- perhaps millions -- more have given up and are not counted. Last month alone, 466,000 people lost their job. They're not numbers; they're individuals with a story to tell. Here's one.
"Even if you don't know me, you know me," Aja Halvorson says. "I really do rub off on people." She's right. She's the poster child of many in her generation. She's looking to make a difference, she's gone back to school, but she's also struggling through the flotsam of foreclosure, unemployment, and bankruptcy.
"Oh my God, I should never been allowed to buy a house," Halvorson, 28, says. She had a $36,000 annual salary when she worked as a Web developer and project manager. But the St. Paul home she bought wasn't insulated and when her heating bill hit $400 a month in the winter of 2007-2008, she found herself living in only her dining room.
She took on a second job at United Parcel Service in Eagan, working there from 2-8 a.m., then working her day job until 6 p.m., and then sleeping until just after midnight, but when big financial service clients started dropping their business in a collapsing economy, her main employer dropped her in September 2008. Weeks earlier, it had required her to commute to a different office in Champlin, an office far enough away that she had to give up her second job and, finally, the keys to her house. Her $106,000 home is valued at about $36,000 now. It's still empty.
She asked about a severance package. She says her now-former boss laughed instead. She filed for unemployment, searched through online job listings but found that many of the jobs "were fake." Some companies ran recruitment ads just to look like they were busy, she said. But they weren't really hiring.
She moved in with her mother in Lakeville for a time, but has moved back into St. Paul and away from the isolation of the suburbs. She lives over a pizza shop owned by her sister's fiance ("it's insanely cheap") and occasionally helps out in the business.
Halvorson has taken a circuitous route to unemployment. She went to the University of Minnesota in the Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Deviance program. She wanted to be probation officer. But an internship in Apple Valley convinced her that wasn't for her. She says her co-workers were too jaded, and she didn't want to go through life seeing people in the middle of the day and wondering if they were on home detention.
Now she's taking courses at Inver Hills Community College and plans to transfer soon to Metro State University, in search of a teacher's certificate. There are no jobs in Minneapolis schools, so she's volunteering at a charter school and, apparently, making a difference. Last week she taught a girl how to use a ruler. The girl is 15.
"You need people on your side," she says. "You need an advocate. I know I'm making a difference. I'm there for the kids."
Her weekly $340 from unemployment ran out last week. She's in the middle of filing for bankruptcy. She says she once wondered what it would be like to lose everything, and now has lost much of it. But slowly. Unemployment here. Foreclosure there. "There's not a lot of time to grieve," she says.
"My demographic has been screaming for help," she says. "We make too much money to get it, we're single, and we don't have kids... There are a lot of people like me going through the same thing. We should be succeeding, and we're not."