Obama's promises not aiding those who need help now


Published: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 8:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2009 at 8:11 p.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joe Lewis came to the local unemployment 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, Lewis arrived to fill out the paperwork for an extension, weary and uncertain about the future.

A new president will soon take responsibility for the American economy — the first black president, which has a particular resonance for Lewis, 52, an African-American. That Barack Obama is promising to spend hundreds of billions of dollars toward creating jobs is interesting, too. Yet none of this gave Lewis comfort.

“I haven’t seen the change,” 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.”

Lewis’ 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 unemployment office in downtown Columbia — whose economic experience traces the national trajectory over the last decade more than any other metropolitan area.

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 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.

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