Hard times leave some better off, others wounded

This month marks five years since economists declared the end of the Great Recession, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the semi-official arbiter of such things.

Many metro Atlantans think it never ended.

Most recessions since World War II were followed by a burst of growth that created millions of jobs and led to new, broad-based prosperity.

Not this time. Economists say this recovery is unusually sluggish because it followed a financial crash. Credit dried up overnight, construction skidded to a halt and consumers frightened of losing their jobs stopped spending.

“Recoveries after a financial crash are always slow. And it is still not over,” said Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University.

Growth resumed in mid-2009, but the recession “left the U.S. economy in an injured state,” Hoover Institution economist Robert Hall wrote in a recent paper for the NBER. He found that economic output in 2013 was 13 percent lower than if it had continued the trend line from 1990 to 2007.

While the jobless rate has dropped to almost normal levels, those still unemployed face only slightly better odds of finding new work than they were five years ago, Hall wrote, mainly because job growth is modest while the population keeps growing.

“The years since 2007 have been a macroeconomic disaster for the United States of a magnitude unprecedented since the Great Depression,” he concluded.

Consumers are still burdened with debt, and despite rebounding home values roughly one-third of metro Atlanta homeowners still owe more on mortgages than their homes are worth, according to research company Zillow.

Some good news: Stocks have risen on average about 92 percent since 2009, fattening portfolios and boosting the so-called “wealth effect” that prods consumer spending. Foreclosures and bankruptcy filings are down. Job growth is unspectacular, but steady. The unemployment rate in metro Atlanta, which crested at a painful 10.6 percent in 2010, is now 6.5 percent.

But every person’s situation is different, and not easily captured in statistics. Some have battled through adversity to emerge better off; others are still left behind. Five years into the recovery, the AJC asked some residents of the region: How about you? Are you better off now than you were five years ago?

Lena Turner, 57, of Lula

The past five years have gotten tougher, not better, for Turner.

Coming out of the recession she had a steady, decent-paying job as a paramedic and hospital communications officer. She had savings and credit cards. She had no trouble making mortgage payments on her home in Lula, north of Gainesville.

But since being laid off in 2012 amid a round of cost cuts, she hasn’t had a full-time job. She’s applied many places – stores, pet hospitals, a chicken plant. She’s now working again as a paramedic for an ambulance company, but usually only a day or two a week at about $12 an hour, far less than her prior full-time job.

She stays most nights with relatives in Lawrenceville to save money on utilities. She goes home now and then to feed her cat, but she’s not sure how long she can keep the house.

“I used to drive through Atlanta and see people living under bridges and think, oh, that’s just about drugs and drinking and now, I see. It could be me.”

Turner thinks of magnolia trees that she sees sometimes standing alone where a grove of trees used to be.

“When you are young, your family is around you, trying to protect you,” she said. “You get older, they go away or die and you have to stand on your own. I am just trying to be one of those magnolias, still standing.”

Will Carmack, 42, of Lithia Springs

Carmack’s livlihood depended on construction. When real estate crashed, he lost his house and most of his income.

Carmack, a crane operator, had been making a good living, working 55 or 60 hours a week on new condo buildings and offices. When that work halted, he couldn’t make payments on his home near Camp Creek Parkway. The lender took it, and Carmack filed for personal bankruptcy.

“I thought about leaving (Atlanta) a million times,” he said. “I probably would have, but for my daughter being in school here. And then I figured Atlanta would come back … at some point.”

Hanging in there when many others in construction left town, he got some part-time work and some income. His persistence paid off in the past two years. Now Carmack is working up to 70 hours a week and making better money than ever.

“I’m just basically going on all cylinders. Construction has come back to Atlanta.”

He bought another house, this one in Lithia Springs. His daughter just graduated from high school.

“Sometimes you are miserable, but it’s a good kind of miserable,” he said. “Things have gone well for me. I am probably about 100 percent better off right now than I was back then.”

Renee Kirlin, 59, of College Park

Told that the recession ended five years ago, Kirlin chuckled bitterly. “That is so hilarious,” she said.

Two years into that the economic recovery that followed, Kirlin was making what she considered decent money as an activities director at an apartment community for older people citizens. She was let go in late 2011 in what she said was a management shake-up.

She hunted in vain for similar work. “It is not a huge field, and there is very little turnover. There is a lot of competition for the jobs.”

She broadened her search but hasn’t found steady work.

“I have applied for cashier jobs at Target. I have applied for waitressing jobs. I have applied for personal care, for housesitting, dog-sitting, cat-sitting and cleaning – anything I could.”

She said she works a few days a month, sometimes being hired to clean by members of her church. “I took care of a woman with dementia for five days when her family was away on vacation.”

She owns a home in Decatur. Because Georgia has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, she could not get healthcare coverage as a no-income person. But she could qualify for subsidized insurance under the law if she rented her home. So she moved in with her mother in College Park.

“I qualified for the ACA – thank you, Jesus! – on April 1,” said Kirlin, who has Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. She hears the unemployment rate has been falling but she still hasn’t had any luck with her own job search.

“I heard an economist say that inflation is low and things in the economy are just about perfect,” she said, “and I thought, ‘What universe do you live in?’”

Megan Verner, 28, of Rutledge

Five years ago, Megan Verner was graduating from the University of New Mexico with a degree in agricultural economics and a minor in marketing. But she emerged into a damaged economy with a still-rising jobless rate. Even healthy companies were hesitant to hire.

She moved home to Rutledge, about 50 miles east of Atlanta, considering but rejecting the idea of graduate school. She started looking for a job in animal pharmaceuticals.

She had trouble finding anything. But she was persistent and flexible. Since then she has stitched four jobs into a more than full-time quilt of work that combines her interests and skills.

She works between seven to 14 hours a week at a clothing store, and a few hours a week for a service that takes care of horses’ hooves. Six months a year, she and her husband operate a company managing the care of bulls.

“The number of bulls is up the last couple of years, and the prices are a lot higher,” she said.

She also has a marketing job for a veterinary clinic, which she considers an economic indicator of sorts: “If the economy was not better, I don’t think he would have hired me.”

“My goal coming out of college was just to have a job … any job, and to be self-sufficient. Now, five years away, I am 100 percent self-sufficient.”

Is she better off than five years ago? “Yes, 100 percent yes. No doubt in my mind.’”

Neil Ann Raffen, 58, of Conyers

She worked for 21 years as a substance abuse counselor but was laid off in 2011 after returning from medical leave to have a knee replacement.

Raffen was unemployed for about 18 months and emptied her savings. She got help from the state’s Home Safe Georgia program, which can cover up to 24 months of mortgage payments to homeowners who face financial hardships, to keep her condo.

“That made all the difference in the world. If lost the condo, I’d have to go live with my 82-year-old mother in her little house. It would be awful.”

But she had no luck finding work.

“I interviewed to be a teacher,” she said. “I couldn’t even get a job as a substitute. I had never been unemployed like that,” she said.

Eventually she found a part-time job teaching at a school for drunk drivers.

Then she drew on previous teaching experience to land a job at a Decatur elementary school. This past year, she taught second, third and fourth grade.

“It is hard – things have changed since I taught before,” she said. “But you just love the kids, and how they love to learn.”

Raffin, who is single, keeps her spending and debts low, even forgoing cable television.

She makes more than she did five years ago. She still has her home. She works with children, not addicts. Are things better now than they were five years ago?

“I went 18 months and didn’t put anything into my 401(k),” she said. “And that is all I have for savings… It is just me and that is really scary.”

She added a second part to the answer, though.

“I wanted to leave substance abuse counseling and God took care of that for me. I wanted to go back to teaching and God took care of that for me. I didn’t want to lose my house. God took care of that for me, too. Look how everything worked out.”