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US Unemployment Rate Stays High; Not Much Hope for Improvement

The number of U.S. workers filing for unemployment benefits has reached its highest level so far this year. The Labor Department reports that jobless claims went up to 430,000 for the week ending March 1, bringing the four-week average to its highest level this year as well. Economists had expected the claims to go down.

As the U.S. economy continues to struggle, people across the country are feeling the pinch. The Bush Administration has offered proposals to jumpstart the economy; Democratic leaders have offered a counter plan. Congress is considering both. But for now, the more than 8 million Americans who are unemployed see little improvement on the horizon. Joshua Levs talked with some of them in Atlanta, Georgia.

Every Friday, as many Atlanta-area residents head to work, a group of unemployed people get together at a small restaurant north of the city for a networking and support meeting. Over the past year the crowd has grown substantially… now it often draws more than 150 people. Those in the group come from a wide range of economic brackets. Some were making $30,000 a year in their last jobs. Others, like Holly Fields, were making more than $130,000. She lost her job as vice president of a software company a year ago.

"I have lost my job on several occasions to reductions in force, and the longest I've gone is 6 months. This has been the worst economy I've ever seen. And the highest demand for specific skill to fill a role," she said.

The last company she worked for couldn't stay in business after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And things are particularly difficult in the technology sector, due to the collapse of many dot-com companies. Gary Hulsey lost a job doing technical support last November. He hasn't been able to find anything computer-related since then, so he's looking at other areas.

"I'm looking at education, possibly teaching where a certificate is not required. Various things. And everything seems to be pretty tight," he said.

Mr. Hulsey is among the many job-seekers willing to work for a fraction of their previous salaries. Even so, they remain unemployed. President Bush has called job growth the chief domestic concern and lawmakers in Congress are weighing plans to improve the economy. But some jobless Americans, like Burt Nagy, feel the government simply isn't doing enough.

"I think the focus in Washington is on the war in Iraq, North Korea, foreign policy… certainly not on the internal affairs of the country, the unemployment area," he explained.

Most state governments provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs. The weekly checks provide some percentage of what they were making before. Congress passed a plan to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks. Benjamin Pittman, who has a doctorate degree in human resource development, was among those celebrating that move.

"I mean it's not a lot of money, it's only $1,000 a month. But it's still $1,000 a month. You know, it'll keep me from having to do a lot of other things which I really don't want to do," Mr. Pittman said.

But some don't qualify for the extension, or have already used up all the benefits they're entitled to. Henry Starr was laid off from the energy company Enron when its leadership became embroiled in a public scandal. He may soon have to dig into his 401k retirement plan just to get by. But the decline in the stock market has deflated the value of his investment. It was once worth $37,000. Now, it's worth only $7,000.

"If I don't have a job in March or April I will have to go through my 401k and whatever stock I have. Eight months ago I bought a home. My first home. I'm trying to hang onto it," he said.

He's not alone. Holly Fields may have to give up her home and move in with family. She takes a somewhat optimistic view on the situation she and so many other people are facing.

"I think it's going to take everybody spending some time reflecting on spending habits and how blessed we are in the United States," Holly Fields said. "And to reflect back on the old family values we grew up with."

Many jobless folks say they're trying to take matters into their own hands, by starting their own businesses or becoming private contractors who do work for various companies. Steve Filreis has more than 20 years of experience working in finance. He lost his job as chief financial officer of a payroll company more than a year ago. Speaking on his way out of the breakfast meeting, he said he wants to carve out a niche for himself by helping build non-profit organizations.

"I don't want to sit around collecting money, that's not important to me. My interest is going out and doing something that's going to benefit me and the community," he said.

Mr. Filreis says things are very difficult right now. He has two children in private school and has to prepare to pay for their college tuition someday. But he and other unemployed Americans say they're ready to do whatever it takes to find a job and provide for their families ... even if it means, after decades of work experience, starting over.