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Joe Lewis came to the local employment office on Friday in the hope of buying a little more time.Four months had passed since he lost his job as a maintenance worker at a chain of convenience stores, trading a paycheck of $370 a week for an unemployment check of $180 a week. With those benefits about to expire, Mr. Lewis arrived to fill out the paperwork for an extension, weary and uncertain about the future.
A new president is about to take responsibility for the American economy — the first black president, which has a particular resonance for Mr. Lewis, 52, an African-American. That Barack Obama is promising to devote hundreds of billions of dollars toward creating jobs is interesting, too. Yet none of this gave Mr. Lewis comfort.
“I haven’t seen the change,” Mr. Lewis said. “Until he does something, he’s just like all the rest of them to me. He ain’t done nothing for me. Everybody’s making promises.” Mr. Lewis’s job search has amounted to an in-depth tour of shrinking prospects in one of the worst economic downturns since the Depression. He has applied at warehouses, at a moving company, at a concrete plant. So far, nothing. The next stop: a poultry slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Columbia.
Variations on his story echoed through the employment office in downtown Columbia, whose economic experience traces the national trajectory of the last decade more than any other metropolitan area. The people who passed through on this recent morning provided a snapshot of the extraordinary economic challenges inherited by the new president, as well as the mixture of hope and skepticism that greets his arrival.
Hope, because Mr. Obama represents a distinct break from the past, armed with a mandate to unleash government largess toward putting millions of people back to work. Skepticism, because Washington seems a long way from where most Americans live, geographically and figuratively. At the employment office, sounds of frustration created the running soundtrack. “This is the issue …” “I never got the call.” “The store has closed …” “I just need this paper signed, showing that I been here.”
A lot of people have been here. In December, 23,029 people passed through here to arrange job training, seek a new job or arrange unemployment benefits, said Keith Lucas, area director of the Midlands Workforce center, the official name for the place. That was far more than the 13,698 who came in the final month of 2007.
Nationally, some 2.6 million jobs have disappeared since December 2007, when the recession began. Last week, 524,000 more Americans filed for unemployment benefits, amid forecasts that the number could spike as high as 750,000 by late this year.
The economy that Mr. Obama is supposed to somehow fix is gripped by fear and the deepening realization that, for many people, recovery will be an exercise in making do with less than they had before. A year ago, people let go by area factories that had paid as much as $18 and $20 an hour generally balked at the idea of retraining for a job installing heating and air-conditioning gear at half that pay. Now, those training programs are packed.
“There was a lot of resistance before,” said Abby Linden, who oversees such programs. “People now seem to expect that they’re going to have to start over.” Mr. Obama’s inauguration is like a palpable marker of a new beginning for many, an inarguable sign of change, she said. “There’s a lot of excitement and hope,” Ms. Linden said. “People have a lot of faith in him, and faith that he’s going to be able to turn it around.”
And yet, out in the lobby, where dozens of people sat quietly in plastic-backed chairs arrayed across the linoleum floor, waiting to apply for unemployment benefits, weariness and resignation carried as much weight as faith and hope.
“It’s got to be better, it can’t be worse,” said Charles English, 62, who lost his job at an asphalt plant two years ago and has not worked since, living on the good graces of his grown son. “Just to listen to Obama talk and see those kids of his, it just makes you stand up and feel proud.”
But the talk of big spending on public works projects to generate jobs seemed to exclude him. “I ain’t able to go out and get this construction work,” he said. “I’m too old for that. So what happens to me?” As John Arnette sat beneath the pale glow of the fluorescent lights, waiting to inquire why his check had suddenly stopped, he worried that Mr. Obama was promising to spend money the country did not really have, adding to long-term debts.
“You’ve got all the money that’s been given to the financial sector, plus all the money that’s going to the Big Three auto companies,” he said. “Where’s the money going to come from?” It was the same question being asked with increasing frequency in his own household: Despite his college degree, Mr. Arnette, 36, has been out of work since May, when he lost his job as a midlevel manager at a convenience store chain.
Looking for work has been a humiliating process of discovery. Fresh college graduates are working as waiters or stocking the shelves at Lowe’s, the home improvement store. Management positions there seem increasingly filled by people with graduate degrees.
His wife still works, at a Verizon Wireless call center, but their household income has dropped from $150,000 a year to about $65,000. “I’m blessed that my wife has a good job,” Mr. Arnette said. “Without that, I’d be homeless.”
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