(WOMENSENEWS)--This Thanksgiving, Kathy Henry, a 38-year-old single mother of three in Chicago, considers the extensions of jobless benefits one of her major blessings.
"I don't know what I would have done if Congress hadn't authorized a 13-week extension in June," she said. "We might have ended up homeless because it would have been impossible to pay the $682 a month rent."
Her unemployment benefits run out March 31, 2009.
Henry stretches her meager benefits by adhering to a "discount budget."
"Everything I buy is a sale item," she said. "It takes a lot of work and planning to live like this because the cost of necessities like food is increasing."
"Despite our economic plight, we consider ourselves blessed and will celebrate Thanksgiving at home with our neighbors who are also struggling economically. We may not have turkey, however, because I hear that ham is on sale."
Henry has always prided herself on being a "can-do person" but that's been severely tested during the past 15 months.
As Women's eNews reported in September, Henry, an administrative assistant and 15 other employees of a Chicago advertising agency were let go after the firm lost a major contract.
Despite 22 years of work experience--12 years in administration alone--Henry has not found another job. Although employers are impressed that she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology while working full time, no one has offered her a position.
"I've sent out hundreds of resumes, networked, cold-called and attended dozens of job fairs," she said. "But the unemployment rate in Chicago is now 7.5 percent--one of the highest in the nation--so no one is hiring. At first there were no jobs in advertising, but now fields like retailing and even local government agencies are cutting back."
To improve her job prospects, Henry recently enrolled in a master's degree program--and received a scholarship--at Roosevelt University in Chicago that will qualify her to teach young adults in community colleges.
Community Colleges Beckon
"Demand for these teachers is increasing in the Middle West," said Henry. "I think it will be a good career for me. In addition to a salary that will allow me to support my family, community colleges provide pensions and other benefits that are crucial for single women."
Henry also believes that community colleges are more open to hiring middle-aged women than are advertising agencies, nonprofit organizations and Fortune 500 companies where she has applied.
"Older women make good role models for struggling students," said Henry. "There is a lot of age discrimination today. Many employers prefer to hire young people straight out of school because they cost them less in benefits. Employers don't want to take a chance on hiring someone pushing 40 because they are afraid that you won't be able to adapt your experience to what they need."
Like their mother, Henry's children are also counting on education to provide a better life. Her oldest daughter is enrolled at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Her son is a junior in high school and the 7-year-old girl is a first-grader; both attend public schools in Chicago.
"My older children have lined up summer jobs, which will help us get through the next few months until I can begin my teaching career," said Henry, who volunteers in a literacy program at her youngest daughter's school.
Henry and her family have survived on her occasional temp jobs, dwindling savings and $322 a week in unemployment benefits.
--Sharon Johnson, correspondent.
Thankful for Her Employment
Another single mother, Cindy Elmore, knows the value of having paid employment.
The journalism professor at East Carolina University in Greenville plans to celebrate Thanksgiving with her daughter, Jaimie, and her friends at her home in North Carolina.
She says that this year, as in years past, she is grateful for her stable, good-paying job, which has kept her family financially afloat over an economically turbulent past.
But similar to Henry, her main financial worry--featured in a commentary she wrote for Women's eNews--persists. She still hasn't recouped the child support that her ex-husband didn't pay her for years.
As Elmore wrote in her in November 2005 commentary, for the first three years after she and her ex-husband separated in 2000, she was caring for their young daughter while working a part-time job and going to graduate school. They lived on an annual stipend of $18,500 and without financial contributions from her ex-husband.
In 2004 a court ruled that her husband owed her about $24,000 in child support, so she spent hours going through years of checkbook registers and stacks of faded store receipts to tally up her husband's child-support share, Elmore said.
Calculator, Courtroom Time Wasted
But today she says all of that time on the calculator and in the courtroom appears to have been a waste. She has yet to receive a single dime of the money her husband owed her through 2004; he now owes her many thousands more in unpaid child support, she says.
Elmore says her ex-husband, a teacher, has been in and out of work over the past few years and has dodged court orders to pay his share of child care, and judges and state officials have been lax in enforcing the rules.
"I don't believe the system works," she said.
She says she needs her husband's contributions to help her save up for her daughter's college tuition. "That burden would be made a whole lot easier if I had been receiving child support," she said.
Elmore is not alone.
In fiscal 2007, parents were owed $30 billion in child-support payments collected by the government, according to the National Child Support Enforcement Association in Silver Spring, Md. That amount does not include child support collected through private collection agencies or private payments between parties.
Of the $30 billion owed, the government has collected and distributed $19 billion. The money owed Elmore is among the $11 billion that went uncollected in 2007.
--Allison Stevens, Washington bureau chief.
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