Jobless in Iowa: a third of the state’s unemployed have been looking for work for six months or more

DES MOINES--Colette Noble's kids used to tell her, "You'll never lose your job--you work too hard."

Noble's voice choked up and her eyes welled with tears as she recounted the exchange. "I used to say, 'You know what--you never know,' " she said, during an interview last week at a Starbucks here. "There are lots of good people who worked hard that lost their jobs."

Noble was laid off in January as an account manager at CDS Global, an Iowa-based subsidiary of the Hearst Corporation, where she worked for two decades. She was the was the sole breadwinner for her family of four. Her two sons are 15 and 17. Her husband, a lawyer, stopped working several years ago after becoming addicted to Oxycontin, a painkiller that a doctor prescribed him for back pain. He's now healthy and looking for work again.

Noble, who is 48, threw herself into the search for a new job. "If there's a resource to be found, I feel like I've found it, " she said. But nearly a year later, she's still looking. She's now unable to pay the mortgage on her house.

Her long and fruitless search is hardly uncommon. The political class thinks of Iowa these days mostly as a staging ground for the long presidential campaign surrounding January's first-in-the-nation caucuses (including Saturday's Republican presidential debate at Drake University, sponsored by Yahoo! and ABC News). But for many people in Iowa, the most important day-to-day concern is the state's struggle, along with the rest of the country, to throw off the effects of the Great Recession and the halting recovery that's followed.

Although low by national standards, Iowa's official unemployment rate has spiked to 6 percent--around 99,000 people--from 3.7 percent in 2007, before the economic downturn began. And jobless spells are lasting longer than ever. Iowa's long-term unemployment rate--the share of the 99,000 unemployed who have been out of work for 6 months or more--is 34 percent, nearly twice what it was before the downturn began.

"We look better, it sounds better, it feels better," said David Swenson, an economist who teaches at Iowa State University. "But in fact we have a lot of the stresses and the consequences of the recession that the rest of the nation has."

Iowa didn't have much of a housing bubble, so it escaped the worst of the crash. And thanks to high food prices, its agricultural sector is booming, helping to keep the rest of the state's economy afloat. But Swenson said Iowa's relatively low jobless rate is deceptive. Many of Iowa's younger workers--those under 45--tend to move to places like Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, where there's more work.

"So our historically low unemployment rate is a function of that as well," Swenson said. "Our surplus labor that we can't use, it goes someplace else. It's unemployed elsewhere."

Compounding the problem, the recession exacerbated a nationwide trend that was already underway: a shift toward jobs with lower pay and fewer hours. The jobs gained in Iowa since the recession officially ended in 2009 pay more than $5,000 less, on average, than those lost during the downturn, according to a recent report by the Iowa Policy Project, a union-backed group. Iowa is one of only three states in which wages for low-, median-, and high-wage workers were all lower last year, after adjusting for inflation, than they were a decade earlier. Colette Noble said she'd be "thrilled" to get a job that paid 60 or 70 percent of what she was making before.

Workers of all ages have been hit hard, but Iowans between the ages of 25 and 54 saw a greater rise in unemployment than their younger and older cohorts, the report found. "People that are in their 40s and 50s are not finding work," Swenson said.

Noble said one company where she applied for a job called her in seven times for interviews and seemed poised to make her an offer, but ended up going with someone else. She suspects her age and experience counted against her, because the firm was looking for someone younger and cheaper.

Jerry Schutt lost his senior position at MediNotes, an electronic medical records firm, in 2009 after a decade of work there. He's 58, and he thinks the same thing happened to him. At job fairs, he said, employers "see the resume and they think, This guy, he's gonna want 80 or 90 thousand dollars. And it's hard to convince them that all I want is an interview."

Schutt's genial manner ("get up every day, take a shower, pretend like you're going to work," he advises, for how to handle unemployment) has survived his jobless stint. But he's been forced to reinvent himself. From late last year until July, Schutt worked on a failed technology venture with a friend. Lately he's been helping out a friend who runs a social media marketing firm, getting up to speed on Twitter and LinkedIn.

"Technology isn't just going to go away," he said over beers at a La Quinta hotel in West Des Moines. That day, he had contacted Des Moines's transit authority about a job as a bus driver.

Schutt's wife lost her job last year, and the new one she found pays about half as much. "We lost 75 percent of our income," Schutt said. The financial shock has put a strain on his marriage.

Earlier this year, citing budget constraints, Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, announced the closure of most of Iowa's Workforce Development centers, which offer help with job searches and training. The office closings turned some staff employees into the ranks of the jobless, who had previously been their clients. Kasey Friedrichsen was laid off from Denison's center in August after two years on the job. But she said she's perhaps most concerned about the effects of the office's closing on Denison's large Hispanic community.

"For somebody who might not speak English very fluently, to be able to have us, step by step, help them fill out the application was crucial," Friedrichsen said in an interview at the American Pie Cafe, a restaurant in Avoca, in western Iowa.

Friedrichsen, who is 24, has bounced back quickly. A political junkie since high school, whose poise, maturity, and youthful ambition recall another prairie-state striver, the fictional Tracy Flick of the novel and movie "Election," she'll soon complete a masters degree in public administration, and--inspired in part by the office closings--is running next fall as a Democrat for the state legislature.

Friedrichsen caucused for Joe Biden in 2008, and said she hasn't been paying much attention to the Republican race this year. But Jerry Schutt described himself as a "very very strong Republican." He suggested he's leaning toward Newt Gingrich. Colette Noble, who volunteered for Howard Dean in 2004 and backed Hillary Clinton the last time around, said she has watched some of the 2012 presidential debates, but "there just seems to be a lot of noise." Still, she said she'll likely caucus again, this time as a Republican. She agrees with Mitt Romney on some issues but wonders whether workers will benefit from the corporate tax cuts he advocates.

Other Iowans are looking beyond mainstream politics. Danielle Ryan, a student at Iowa State and an organizer with Occupy Des Moines, which since October has been camped near the state capitol building, said that for some unemployed Iowans, the movement has offered a voice.

"They say: I lost my job but found my occupation," Ryan said.

Others are just trying to get by. Larry Colbert has been living at Central Iowa Shelter and Services, a homeless shelter, after being unable to find permanent work in Kansas City and Des Moines. Colbert, who is 37, was laid off from his job with a lawn services company two years ago. He lost his apartment after being thrown off unemployment benefits. For the last few weeks he has worked temporary jobs, collecting trash and moving materials on construction sites. It's a blow to his pride.

"I wish I could help myself," said Colbert, sitting at a plastic table in the shelter's main hall. "I don't look for the public to help me. I'd rather do it myself. But it's just been a struggle, man."

Last week, Colette Noble told her son's Catholic school that he was being moved to a public school as a cost-cutting measure. "I'm not gonna say that's a hardship," she said. "But for him, his world's been turned upside down."

Noble recently tried to change the payment schedule on her mortgage. But her lender wouldn't agree to the change because she wasn't working. She wasn't eligible for a mortgage modification program, she was told.

Schutt, too, is downsizing. Eight years ago, he and his wife built a large, "kid-friendly" house designed with their eight grandchildren in mind. Now they're putting it on the market and planning to move into a smaller townhouse.

Being out of work has been "life-changing" for Schutt. Talking to workers in their 20s at job fairs gets discouraging. "When I was at that age," he said, "I was on top of the world. I was invincible."

Zachary Roth is a senior national affairs reporter for Yahoo News. Shushannah Walshe is a digital reporter for ABC News. This story is part of a series of articles on the politics of Iowa, leading up to Saturday's Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, sponsored by Yahoo! and ABC News.

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