Stories from Rhode Island’s Unemployment Crisis

In Rhode Island, we talk a lot about unemployment. We talk about the numbers and the rates, we talk about our awful state ranking. But what is often missing from the conversation are the voices of the actual Rhode Islanders who are going through this crisis, who are struggling each and every day to find work, who are worrying more and more about how they’re going to pay the bills or keep their homes.

I am currently working on a project called Where’s the Work? that is focused on sharing the stories of some of these Rhode Islanders. For the next month, I will be posting periodically with short summaries of the experiences of a number of unemployed Rhode Islanders from different walks of life. While obviously such posts can’t come even close to expressing the breadth and depth of our unemployed crisis and its challenges, I’m hoping to at least begin to paint a clearer picture of what so many of our fathers, daughters, friends, and neighbors  here in Rhode Island are going through. I’ll start today with the story of Adria, an energetic and kind Providence mother with whom I’ve had the privilege of speaking several times in the last few weeks.

Adria has been looking for work for six months. And when Adria says she’s been looking for work, she really means it. “I’ve been applying anywhere and everywhere. I’ve applied to places that I wouldn’t even have thought of applying to. But I need a job.” Adria sends in between 25 and 30 applications a week, every week. “I’ve never refused a job, even a part-time job. I’d prefer full-time, but you take what you can get right now.” Previously she was working for a temp agency, but now, she says, “Even the temp agencies don’t have jobs.”

Unemployment has been tough on Adria, both financially and emotionally. “I’m supporting seven children, three kids under five, and our family has definitely had to cut down on spending since I was laid off,” she says. “I spend my unemployment benefits on bills; my husband’s income goes to rent and food. There’s nothing left. We pay for what we absolutely have to, and everything else has been eliminated.” Adria cut off the cable. She cut off the internet. “I mean, I like my Verizon Fios, but I can’t afford it anymore. So I can’t do any of my online applications at home. I’d love to be able to work on them in the evenings, after the kids go to sleep. But I can’t.”

The strain of these tough decisions is evident. “I was going through depression. You know, searching for a job all day, telling my kids they can’t have this or that. I don’t like seeing my bills pile up; I like to be on time with my bills. I even had to go to my doctor and get some medicine to help me not get too down. It’s really stressful.”

If Adria’s husband lost his job, too, she doesn’t know what they’d do. She’s been homeless before—five years ago—but she’ll do anything to keep from going back. “Oh no, I’m not going back to that shelter. I couldn’t stay there more than one night. They’re terrible places, especially for children.”

What Adria really doesn’t understand is how there can be an unemployment crisis when there is so much work that needs to be done in Rhode Island. “There are so many jobs out there that need doing. We need people to fix up all these abandoned houses. We need people to clean these filthy buses. I have a friend who broke her car on a pothole. Had to pay $600 out of her own pocket, but nobody’s working on our roads.” Adria signs. “The State of Rhode Island doesn’t do anything to help you. I’ll tell you what, if you put us mothers in charge, we’d get a lot more done.”

Adria wouldn’t dream of giving up. But she’s worried—worried for the present, but particularly worried for the future. “We’re not gonna have a retirement. We’re not gonna have anything for our children or our grandchildren. I want my kids to have jobs. I don’t want them to have to struggle like I am.”

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Aaron Regunberg is a community organizer in Providence and a state representative in House District 4.

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