MERCED (AP) — With her anti-poverty budget stretched beyond its limits, Brenda Callahan-Johnson is braced for next Saturday: the day California's chronically unemployed will be cut off from the nation's jobless benefits.
A drop in the state's unemployment rate to 11 percent — its lowest mark in three years — is triggering the federal cutoff of emergency, long-term unemployment pay to at least 93,000 Californians.
But in the state's agricultural heartland, where Callahan-Johnson runs the Merced County Community Action Agency, a jobless rate of more than 20 percent — two and a half times the nationwide average of 8.2 percent — makes it difficult for some to believe an economic recovery has begun.
"I think Merced County is used to hardships, but we are stretched beyond our capacity here," Callahan-Johnson said of the rural county that sits roughly midway between Fresno and Sacramento. "In Merced County there are no jobs to be had."
The cut-off is another blow to a region with the state's highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, and where the bursting of the housing bubble has led to the highest foreclosure rate in the country.
The Golden State has lost its luster for many of the chronically unemployed, and even for those whose job it is to provide anti-poverty services to them. With just two weeks' notice, those 93,000 people will join 670,000 other unemployed Californians whose benefits, averaging $292 a week, already have run out.
"This is a hard cut-off. It's not like you get to finish out your 20 weeks," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project. "This is a very dramatic impact with this latest wave of workers ... who once were gainfully employed who have run out of everything."
Tina Dumaguing is among them. Her unemployment benefits expired in April, 99 weeks after she lost the job she had held for 11 years as a duplicating technician with the Turlock Unified School District. With two foreclosure notices on her home in the town of Delhi, shut-off notices from the water and power companies, nothing left in savings and an unreliable '98 Saturn limiting her mobility, she is finding herself in a position she never imagined.
On Thursday, at age 50, she applied for food stamps for the first time.
"Before I thought if I had to do this, I'd be embarrassed," said Dumagui