Debt by degrees

Jeff Taylor has a winning smile, a firm handshake, and a bachelor’s degree in Economics. He is also legally homeless.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Taylor used to spend most of his nights on his friend’s couches, switching from one place to another in order to not be a burden. Then all but two of his friends moved away last year, leaving him stranded.

Taylor worked for two years with a marketing firm when he left college but was downsized when the economy hit the company hard. “I just walked into work, ran into my boss, and then had to walk right back out again,” said Taylor.

 Now Taylor gets work when and where he can. He often does carpentry and landscaping work that pays fairly well but offer few opportunities. With fewer people buying homes or being able to afford landscaping, the industries are not faring well. Taylor often has to compete for work with experienced tradesmen who have been laid off themselves. He stands at home improvement stores alongside much older men, hoping that someone needs their grass cut or house painted today. There are good days but most of the time, Taylor ends up with nothing more than a sunburn.

 Athens’ current unemployment rate is 10.3%, slightly higher than the national rate of 9.7% according to U.S. Department of Labor. Taylor has noticed a lot more college grads around Athens taking small jobs in an effort to pay off crippling student loans. It’s a chain reaction that Taylor sees causing a lot of problems, losing his job ended up costing him a lot more than he thought.

“I couldn’t pay off my credit cards so I couldn’t rent a place if I wanted to,” he said. “And I don’t have a good single place to eat or shower or make phone calls in order to try and find a job. I’m stuck spinning my wheels.”

With many jobs already taken, people like Taylor are turning to part-time and low wage jobs to make ends meet. Some young graduates moved back home to their parents’ houses after being unable to find a job. Juliet Cimbers says that pride kept her from making that decision, despite the small amount of financial help it may have brought.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to go back there and sit in the same bedroom I had as a child,” said Cimbers, “Not after all the work I did.”

Cimbers now takes pictures of jewelry and writes descriptions of the pieces for her employer who sells them on eBay.

“I’m lucky to get paid at all some days,” said Cimbers, who works on commission from the jewelry sales. “I went to college. I got good grades. And I write stuff on eBay so I can pay my rent this month. I just can’t believe it. I thought my education would be worth more. Guess not, huh?”

Cimbers is hopeful that the new measures put in place by the Obama administration will help her find a job that will allow her to start paying off her student loans. Obama signed a bill in mid-March aimed at increasing hiring rates at companies by offering them $18 billion in tax breaks. Businesses that hire people who have been unemployed for at least 60 days will be exempt from paying a 6.2 % Social Security payroll tax through December. Employers will receive a $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year.

Taylor is not quite as optimistic. Fewer people have money to spend, he reasons, and less money to spend means that companies still won’t hire because no one is able to buy their products and services. Cimbers disagrees with that reasoning. People will start to miss the finer things in life, she says, and they will begin to spend a little bit more than in the past few years.

Until then, however, Cimbers and Taylor continue their day to day survival, hindered by massive debt, low wages, and a bleak looking economy.

“It’s going to get better,” says Cimbers. “It’s just got to.”

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