By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
Last month, Over 50 and Out of Work completed the interviewing portion of our multimedia project, and we are now editing our feature-length documentary. The film will focus on three of our original 100 interviewees, who are all over 50 years of age and lost their jobs as a result of the Great Recession.
The film’s three main characters struggle with the most common difficulties that our 100 interviewees have experienced - the shock of sudden, unexpected joblessness; worries about paying bills, especially mortgage payments; loss of health insurance; a prolonged and frustrating job search; depleted or exhausted savings, as well as diminished optimism about the future. They each resolve or adapt to the devastating impact of extended unemployment on their lives differently, but the issues of health insurance coverage and homeownership dominate their concerns and fears, as they do for many Americans who are 50-plus and jobless.
“If I lost my benefits, which could possibly happen in January, coverage for me and my wife would probably run into $800 a month,” said Joe P., 52, of Weirton, W.V., a laid-off steelworker and a cancer survivor.
When we interviewed Joe in May of 2010, he was still eligible for health insurance coverage under his union contract, but facing its impending termination, unless he was called back to work at the declining steel mill where he had worked for 24 years. He was deeply worried that he would not be able to afford to buy or find private coverage, given his medical history, and that he and his wife would lose their home, if he needed medical care and was uninsured. Fortunately, in late 2011, Joe found a new full-time manufacturing job that does provide healthcare insurance, and he has been able to continue making mortgage payments.
Joe’s fears were not unfounded. Currently, 49 million Americans do not have health insurance coverage, and the number of uninsured increased dramatically during the Great Recession when unemployment skyrocketed. Between 2007 and 2011, the rate of employer-sponsored coverage in the United States declined from 63.5 percent to 58.8 percent. Over the five-year period, 5.7 million Americans became uninsured, usually because they lost their employer-sponsored coverage.
Rick P., 62, of Piscataway, N.J., has not had health insurance coverage since April 17, 2007, when he was one of the 17,000 mid-level managers that Citigroup laid off on that one day. The temporary or part-time jobs he has found over the past five years have not provided health insurance benefits.
People suffer when they do not have health care coverage. “Their primary source of care tends to be the emergency room, so they’re not getting coordinated care; they don’t have the same physician and other healthcare providers all the time; they have much higher rates of hospital admissions, and, as a result, their health deteriorates,” said John Holahan, director of the health policy center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
Moreover, health care is expensive; its costs continue to rise, and individuals without health insurance risk draining their savings and losing their homes.
“I don’t think we’d have this house today without health insurance,” said Jeanine, Joe’s wife, about their experience when Joe was unemployed.
Economists predict that 8 to 13 million Americans will lose their homes before the Great Recession and its aftermath are over.
“The number one reason that people end up in foreclosure is that they lose their jobs, and they can’t make payments,” said Eric Belsky, director of the joint center for housing studies at Harvard University. Belsky added that the other underlying reason that people lose their homes to foreclosure is a “budget shock,” particularly medical care, which can be devastating for the uninsured.
Five out of our 100 interviewees have already lost their homes due to foreclosure and several others are trying to renegotiate the terms of their mortgages to retain ownership of their homes.
The hardships that the foreclosure crisis has inflicted on many Americans has changed their perceptions of homeownership, according to Sewin Chan, associate professor of public policy at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “I think housing is no longer going to feel like the gateway to opportunity that it was, maybe, during the last 10 years, because people have realized that home values are not just going to increase forever,” she said.
On average, American homes have decreased in value by 25 to 30 percent as a result of the Great Recession, which caused widespread hardship by wiping out the accumulated equity that many people, including our interviewees, had counted on as a nest egg.
In 2011, when we interviewed Donna J., 61, of Antioch, Calif., she had been out of work for almost a year. She said that the value of her home had dropped by almost 50 percent since the time she purchased it in 2003.
“I’ve got a house I can’t sell,” Donna said. “I’m cashing in my retirement benefits piece by piece. I’m going to be working forever.”
Donna has been re-employed as a technical writer, but the impact of the Great Recession on her life plans has not ended. She is paying off bills, rebuilding her savings and hoping that the value of her home rebounds, as the economy slowly recovers. For most of our interviewees and for many Americans, the economic downturn upended their expectations about the future. The majority of Americans no longer believe that their children will have a better life than they had.
Recent forecasts suggest that the housing market is finally beginning to stabilize, which may mean that Donna and many others will gradually see the value of their homes begin to creep up and allow them to regain some of their confidence about the future. If home values do not improve, the aftereffects of the Great Recession on the economy are going to drag on for many years to come, continuing to negatively influence people’s belief in the traditional American Dream.