Category Archives: stimulus bill

That old feeling of uselessness is back

By Mariam Williams

A few months ago I attended a business networking luncheon sponsored by an organization whose members were determined not to participate in the recession.  Each member even wore a button stating the sentiment.  Although I probably had an unemployment check stub in my purse, and I was neither the employee of a business that gives entrepreneurs loans nor of one that depends on referrals, I participated as actively in the meeting as I did (and still do) in the recession.

At some point, one of the officers of the group invited all members and guests to join him in a game.  He would throw out a scenario, and anyone whose business or skills applied to that scenario was to stand and explain how.  For example, if he said, “A family of four is relocating to this city,” the real estate agents in the room would stand and say they would help the family find a place to live; the contractors would fix or remodel the house; the interior decorators and furniture salespersons would help furnish it; the therapist would help the family adjust to the move; and the divorce attorney would be there if therapy failed.  (Seriously, someone stood up and said that.)

The final example – I don’t remember the second – was of a new restaurant opening.  I stood up among the commercial real estate agents, contractors, material suppliers, event planners, website designers, radio sales associates, and marketing specialists.  I could write, proofread or edit the content on the restaurateur’s website, come up with a slogan if he didn’t already have one, write the scripts for his radio commercials and write the press release about the grand opening event.  See.  Out of three scenarios, I could contribute something to one of them.

I could contribute something.

I’ve written about this before, about this feeling that I’m gifted in such a way that is useless to my present situation and quite possibly to the nation’s future.  The feeling came up again Wednesday morning as I heard CNN’s Roland Martin’s segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.  He interviewed Dr. Wayne Watson, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, about the importance of funding two-year and community colleges.  The Obama Administration recently unveiled a plan to pour $12 million into community colleges.  While four-year colleges still have their place, Watson explained, stimulus money is going to green jobs and to shovel-ready projects, jobs many laid-off workers can be certified to perform within nine months through the abundance of retraining programs offered at community colleges.  Jobs that may start at $16 to $28 per hour, but that can pay $55,000 to $75,000 annually.  Other job-seekers could sharpen their skills for the jobs of the future with an associate’s degree and earn even more.  You graduate from a four-year college, Watson pointed out, and it can be several years before you even get close to a yearly salary of $55,000.

Do I feel cheated?  For all the reasons I gave here, yeah, maybe a little.  But the heavier feeling is that of uselessness, of being one among many thousands of unemployed writers (or unemployed-something-elses-turned-writers) trying to believe there’s something I can write about new construction and solar panels besides website content and press releases.

You know, something clicked for me when Michael Jackson died, or more accurately, when I saw news coverage of the memorial service and reactions to his death from people in London.  The day he died, a spontaneous dance party broke out in a public square I couldn’t identify.  Brits of all colors sang “Billie Jean” together.  The camera zoomed in on the crowd enough for me to catch a man of Middle Eastern descent, his head covered in a blue turban, dancing and singing in the middle of the party.  When singers at the memorial service performed “Heal the World,” our neighbors across the Pond, who were watching the service on outdoor screens, left their huddles of friends to link arms with strangers watching the service, and sang along.  I thought, “That’s what it’s all about.  That’s what art is supposed to do.”  It really can enrich the human spirit.  It truly can unite us in spite of our differences.  It is inspiring.

My gifts aren’t worthless.  They’re just not worth any stimulus money.  And it’s damn hard to find an employer seeking someone with these skills.


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


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Filed under Arts and Culture, education, stimulus bill, Unemployment

The end of consumerism? Part 2 – Frugality ends when living life laid off does. Pity

by Mariam Williams

“You see, when this recession began, many families sat around their kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. So do many businesses. That is a completely responsible and understandable reaction. But if every family in America cuts back, then no one is spending any money, which means there are more layoffs, and the economy gets even worse.” – President Obama, Speech on the economy at Georgetown University, April 14, 2009, about 10 minutes in.

Is frugality bad for the economy?

That’s the question author Amy Dacyzyn poses on page 61 of The Tightwad Gazette II. Here’s what’s crazy: The book was published in 1995 and references a 1992 book by Ross Perot entitled, United We Stand, for further reading on how rethinking spending can lead to a more stable economy.

The question remains relevant because we keep getting ourselves into recessions, and counting on spending to get ourselves out and to sustain our economy.  I attended a business webinar today in which speaker economic futurist Jeff Thredgold stressed that the tide has begun to turn in the economy.  He and other experts are now predicting that we will move out of the current recession, which officially began in December 2007, before the end of 2009.  Although this recession has lasted longer than those of 1980 and the early 1990s and unemployment may still increase to over 10%, the severity has begun to level off.  The stock market shows signs that consumer confidence is starting to build again, and that’s critical to our economy; seventy percent of our national income is determined by consumer spending.

Here’s the thing that’s really hitting us with a national unemployment rate of 8.5 percent: not all of that spending is from hard-earned money.  In 2008, 65% of our spending was dictated by wages and salaries, down from 80% from 1980 to 2007.  That means we rely on credit for 35% of our spending.  Those whose credit cards remain open during unemployment-because if a bank suspects you won’t be able to make your payments, they can cut you off at any time, or raise your interest rates, for any reason really, without notice-will likely continue to use them, but not on the vacations, appliances, clothing, and entertainment they did before.

If it lasts long enough, the forced frugality of the current recession could change American society as a whole from greedy, credit-burdened consumerists who work to get more stuff they can’t enjoy because they’re working too much to pay off the debt they borrowed to get the stuff, to a society that values the bare necessities, the earth, and interpersonal experiences.  As Marian Salzman, the chief marketing officer of Porter Novelli, a public-relations company, said in a story published last month in U.S. News & World Report, “[T]here is an anti-bling thing going on.”

I heard much of the same on the radio show State of Affairs last month.  People have shifted their dollars to maintenance, “do it yourself” projects, anything that will help them save money at a time when they fear they might not have a job forever, or when they know that a home equity loan is impossible on an upside down house.  The savings rate has gone from -1% to 5%.  People are tracking their spending, learning how to prioritize, and learning how to define what’s really important.  We’re learning lessons that can bring down a capitalist economy.

Greed has employed me.  I don’t understand why auto makers roll out a new version of every model of every make every year, or why most drivers get bored with their car after three years and feel the need to swap one vehicle they don’t own yet for another one they never will, but I made more money per month selling cars than I have per month at any other job.  I hated wrapping overpriced presents for ungrateful, rich snobs in Seven jeans and Juicy Couture jogging suits who routinely spent over $1000 a week in a southern California Bloomingdale’s and who threw tantrums over restrictions on the 20 percent savings cards that cost them a $5 charitable donation once a year, but without their obsession over obtaining the latest styles before everyone else and at regular price, I would not have been able to eat as I nurtured my showbiz habit.  I can’t tell you how many commercials I wrote as a radio copywriter advertising clothing sales, furniture with easy financing and guaranteed credit approval, or specials on custom wheels, sound systems, and rims.  Those same marketers’ holding back their ad dollars led to my current state and is presently sending newspapers and other publications into bankruptcy.  One of the comments in the pile Oprah’s website collected after Suze Orman’s last financial show was from an irate spa owner, appalled at Orman’s advice to cut your spending to the “bare bones,” or as the commenter saw it, put small business owners out of business.

Our country is at a crossroads right now.  The greed that unregulated free enterprise bred has screwed us, but a radically new system is still too hard for people not yet suffering to imagine.  I’m not even sure that the government should take charge of or be heavily involved in the overseeing of corporations, and I don’t know why I’m not sure.  Perhaps because I know and admire several smart, honest women who own their own businesses and feel like they deserve to revel in their success.  Perhaps because I know that money is a motivator and that it’s employed me.  Perhaps because I like paying low prices more than I care about the exploitation of workers.  (Of course, if I were earning enough money to only support local small businesses, I would.)  Perhaps because I think our government officials are just as fallible as everyone else, and if they don’t mess up a new system with their own disagreements or errors in judgment, a person with greater ingenuity will buy them out.

The Obama Administration could be on the right track anyway.  Keynesian economic theory suggests that we spent our way out of the Great Depression with federal stimulus packages that increased disposable income.  History also shows us that we tend to revert back to our old ways once the tough times are over.  Most of us were spending beyond our means, but at least we had some means, and once those means are restored to their previous levels-and for many industries, or people willing to learn new skills, they will be (even before the end of the year!)-most us will revert back to credit and debt.  Of course, massive debt isn’t entirely the consumer’s fault; when credit card companies and banks can change your interest rates on a whim, manageable debt becomes unbearable.  If corporate greed is somewhat regulated when the hard times are over this time, we might have even more confidence in our plastic cards.

Amy Dacyzyn believes that if we as a society were able to save more money, we would be a better society in three ways: 1) we would have more venture capital to start businesses; 2) we would have less federal debt and lower taxes because we wouldn’t be paying off our own bad decisions; and 3) we would be able to focus on real causes of economic problems, like the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.

I’m hoping that the story from U.S. News & World Report is true and that our frugality may actually become so ingrained that we question every purchase and use more cash. I’m concerned about just how our economy will restructure itself if we’re not dependent on the sale and marketing of unnecessary stuff, but if the trend continues, or if we fall quickly into another recession after this one is over, we’ll have to find a new way.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

What are YOUR plans for your money after you bounce back?

See a transcript of the president’s speech from last week here.


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


Filed under Economy, Lifestyles, money, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment

Before you make higher education your sanctuary from living life laid off, consider this

by Mariam Williams

It’s the secret all those colleges and universities who flood job expos will never tell you: The well-educated are among those living life laid off, and they might be doing it longer than those with less education.

I had to address this after hearing Wednesday’s Talk of the Nation.  Gustavo Arellano elaborated on his recent op-ed for the LA Times in which he stated that his parents’ generation of Mexican immigrants who “came to this country with nothing” and remained in the unskilled labor force all their lives is, “in many ways better positioned to weather this recession than the sons and daughters they encouraged to educate themselves and aspire to better lives.”

I heard a similar opinion four days before hearing this one.  The first opinion came from Pietra Rivoli, an economics professor at Georgetown University.  She was on NPR’s This American Life addressing economic and business correspondent Adam Gibson’s concern about DJ, his 25-year-old cousin who decided to drop out of college.  Angered over his cousin’s decision, Gibson said, “There is one thing I have learned with absolute certainty, and that’s that the competitive advantage of the United States and our citizens, the way we will succeed in this global economy going forward is through skills, education, knowledge.  In other words, stay in school, get a college degree and you’ll be in a much better position … in the global economy.  And if you drop out of college, then you have basically consciously decided not to participate in the economic growth and possibilities in the coming decades.”

Gibson expected Rivoli to agree with him.  She didn’t.

She described the jobs in DJ’s work history as “non-tradable.”  Unlike the positions of people who went straight from high school to factories, then were laid off after 20+ years on the job when their work was shipped to China or Mexico, DJ’s jobs – laying telecom lines, carpentry, truck driving, etc. – aren’t going anywhere.  DJ was primed for a life of body aches, but for a good life nonetheless.  The segment concluded with the experts noting that the educated classes are more stressed about the recession and about their lives in general.

I was as surprised as Gibson when I heard Rivoli say this, but hearing it again has left me feeling taken aback, in disbelief, disturbed, concerned, and maybe even a little alarmed.  Actually, the best word might be unhinged.  Although I noticed years ago that a college degree didn’t guarantee success, riches, or even a job, I’ve always thought it better than the alternative.  A college degree would shield me from having to be a domestic, work in a fast food restaurant the rest of my life, drive a bus, work temp jobs, and whatever else women whose highest education level is a high school diploma do.

A degree goes beyond the concrete circumstances I wanted to avoid.  To roam the halls of academia and imbibe the wisdom of some of the great scholars and thinkers of our time; to dialogue with and live among students from different cultures and countries, to etch your way into adulthood away from the comforts of home and to be entrusted to establish your independence are privileges not extended to the majority of the world.  And as a descendant of people who were whipped or whose eyes were gouged or burned out for learning to read; a member of the gender still denied education in many parts of the world; and a self-described nerd, to stop my education at high school never occurred to me.

It also never occurred to me that I – or my country – might one day be unable to use my education.

The 44th President of the United States is a Harvard Law School graduate.  Those of us baffled by the two elections of a blubbering imbecile and the vice presidential candidacy of another have delighted in the return of oratory excellence and critical thought to the nation’s highest office.  President Obama fought throughout his campaign to appeal to the “Average Joes” and “Joe Six-packs” of the heartland.  And yet, the people who should be most excited about the immediate effects that his stimulus plan will have in their respective states are highly specialized engineers, construction workers, or ditch diggers.  That’s DJ’s current job.

As I’ve said before, I have accepted that it could be a while before people like me come back into demand.  I also know that there’s a positive correlation between adult enrollment in higher education courses and unemployment, and when my state made the top 15 in unemployment numbers, graduate study began to look more attractive.  But to hear Arellano admit that he has a master’s degree but can’t afford a house and knows that his journalism prospects will continue to remain in jeopardy, it hurts.

It hurts because I want to be an advocate for higher education.  I’ve been helping with a college fair for the past several weeks that focuses on getting more minority students to graduate from high school and enroll in college by showing them that success is possible for them and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed.  Now, I don’t believe college is for everyone.  I’m thankful for the DJs of the world; they do respectable, honest work that’s possibly more essential than anything I’m capable of, and I know they can make a good living doing it.  I also know that Bill Gates’s degree is honorary.  I know Steve Jobs dropped out of college.  I know that in Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki advises people who want to be rich to learn a little about a lot and not get more and more specialized in higher education.  He saw his very well-educated father teach for pennies and eventually have to leave his home because he couldn’t afford the property taxes.  I know that some people who want to play basketball or sing or dance or rap or act or write or direct professionally actually get to do it without giving college much thought, and that a few of them can make about a tenth of what Bernie Madoff stole.  But I feel that to advise minority students to go after that instead of higher education is to raise a collective middle finger to history and stain our own hands with our ancestors’ blood, even in this economy.  Yet these conversations have me wondering, what is the goal of college?  To get a job?  If so, am I helping to lead these students down the right path?  Are they better off without the “privilege” of a good education?

DJ and Arellano’s parents have an advantage because they aren’t “unskilled”; they’re adaptable.  They’re good at working with their hands, they learn how to do the work quickly, and they’re not too spoiled to do it.

It wasn’t having classes outside on the perfectly manicured quad, the imported tulips that lined the sidewalks every spring, the Starbucks coffee in every eatery, or even Angie, the kind housekeeper who mopped and vacuumed the floors in my suite twice a week my sophomore year, that spoiled me.  It was the diligence I put into studying, the faithfulness in anticipation of a reward that did it.  To not only not receive the reward, but to also still be paying off the loan I took out to do the hard work to gain the reward as I face the fact that I might have to – again – do something that has nothing to do with the hard work, is a cruel joke.

I’m trying to be humble and flexible, but I have some quirks that make some of the most obvious options unrealistic.  I vowed several years ago that I would never go back to retail, not clothes, not cars, not furniture.  I can work with teenagers in certain settings, but Starbucks isn’t one of them.  Teaching or tutoring children of other ages-or trying to-convinced me not to do it again.  I was great at math and science ten years ago, but I just don’t like them that much, and I don’t remember enough of those crucial subjects to become an engineer who can come up with green energy solutions.  My germaphobic tendencies, lack of natural caregiver instincts, and disdain for blood and human smells nix nursing.  I guess I could go for non-retail sales, but what exactly are people buying right now?  And even though manual labor jobs aren’t traditionally filled by women anyway, I’m just not cut out for them.

So what happens when business owners who have more letters after their name than I do lose their shirts and can’t even draw unemployment because they were business owners?  What do I do if my own hard work turns out to be useless for finding a job, and so for all present intents and purposes, meaningless?  At that point, I will rationalize my disappointment by remembering the words of another writer who discovered that everything really is meaningless, and I focus on all the important parts of life outside of whatever job consumes most of my days.  Until then, I’ll keep doing what I have been: praying for guidance, exploring options, applying for jobs I want, networking, and reinventing myself while honing in on the gifts and talents that are blossoming.  I also give myself one good “that’s not fair” tantrum and then remember that while some are better equipped than others to weather the economic storm, all storms eventually pass.


Some links and things to make you think:


© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.


Filed under education, Layoffs, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment

From Living Life Laid Off to Working Artist?

by Mariam Williams

I recently learned that a friend of a friend has joined the self-reinvention effort in the face of the national economic freefall. She’s decided to go back to school to study fashion design. With her engineering career taking a hard hit, the friend of a friend figures that if she’s going to have to go back to school and reinvent herself, she might as well study something for which she has a passion.

I understand her logic, encourage her efforts, and even applaud her zeal, but something concerns me about all of us who have decided to use our country’s present catastrophe as an opportunity to pursue our artistic passions: where will we find jobs in our new respective fields?

As a life-long artist, I’ve confronted this conundrum many times, and it has undoubtedly contributed to why I’m not further along as a dancer, writer, painter, playwright, screenwriter, or actress. (Yes, I’ve dreamed about, thrown money at, and at some point received formal instruction in all of those areas.) I want to follow my passion(s), but I want to get paid for it (them) too. I believe I should do what I’ve been designed to do and use the gifts I’ve been blessed with, but I also want to satiate, or at least periodically feed, that side of my personality that craves the material things that only about 1% or so of those whose only full-time job is to do what I like to do, can afford to buy. I would rather get paid to do what I love than to, as another friend and artist put it, “work full-time to support my theater habit.”

“Making it” as an artist is difficult in large part because art is subjective, and not just in terms of whether it is good or bad, pretty or ugly, or liked or disliked. What constitutes an artist as one who has “made it”? Fame? Money? Mainstream acceptance? Staying true to your art even though it will cost you more than you make for the rest of your life and only your close inner circle knows your name?

Art is even subjective in terms of whether or not it’s a necessity, especially in a society whose economy is eroding. When President Obama was still the President Elect, my mother sent me an online petition to support the formation of a new cabinet post: Secretary of the Arts. Legendary music mogul Quincy Jones, quoted as saying he plans to “beg” President Obama to establish the post, is among major supporters who also include the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Over 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.

NPR’s story on the possibility of the cabinet position also included the dissenting voice of David Smith, a professor of American history and the author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. His concern, and that of at least one blogger, is that art and government beget censorship and jeopardize artistic freedom. Many who commented on the NPR story had another concern: the cabinet position would be a waste of taxpayers’ money because we just don’t need it.

The latter concern is one reason the major supporters would argue the opposite. From what I gather (see links at the end), their focus seems to be three-fold:

  1. Increase cohesiveness. The Secretary of the Arts or Department of Culture would connect the State Department, Department of Education, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Institute of Museums and Library Services.
  2. Increase the U.S.’s visibility on the world arts stage.
  3. Educate the U.S. masses about the value of art and artists in American society.

The focus is on arts organizations and the public, but the educational aspect may be paramount to individual artists. Supporters of a senior-level culture official are looking for someone to tell the public that “nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year; support 5.7 million jobs; and return nearly $30 billion in local, state, and federal government revenue every year” (Americans for the Arts). They want the public to know that the U.S. had arts ambassadors during the Cold War, and to see, as Quincy Jones does, that “the arts have a spiritual benefit that Americans need,” and that our “emotional defense is just as important” as our military defense.

I want someone who can do number three AND create jobs for artists. If you’re not an artist, you may not know this, but art, in all its forms, is a fiercely competitive field. A 2008 report from the NEA found that about 2 million Americans identify themselves as working artists. The total number of active duty and reserve U.S. military personnel at the time of the NEA’s report was 2.2 million. Because I know that our “emotional defense” will never be seen as important as our military defense, I won’t address the difference in federal funding between the two groups.

I will, however, address federal funding of the arts in the recently-signed stimulus bill, AKA the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Here’s the good news for arts organizations, according to a press release from Americans for the Arts: “The National Endowment for the Arts will distribute $50 million of the stimulus funds to arts projects in all 50 states which specifically preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector that have been most hurt by the economic downturn. … Additionally … the final version removes the Senate ban on state and local governments from using any of the recovery funds to benefit museums, theaters, and art centers.”

Here’s the bad news: I didn’t see anything about art or artists on Congressman John Yarmuth’s (D-KY, 3rd District) link showing highlights of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Louisville and the state of Kentucky. (I guess that since Louisville’s Fund for the Arts exceeded its 2008 campaign goals by 13.8%, we’re doing okay without federal money. On the other hand, 26,000 of the Fund’s donors gave from their workplace, and unemployment is up to almost 8% now.) Also, typing “art” in the search box on yielded no results. Neither did “national endowment arts,” which means that if any money for the arts is in there, it’s not highlighted among the details most people want to know, and if it’s not highlighted, it’s not that important to American society right now.*

That’s unfortunate because the NEA’s study also found that there are about 300,000 part time or seasonal artists in the U.S., and they didn’t count adults who love their art, but very rarely get paid for it. Artists who don’t work full-time as artists compete for many of the same federal, state, and local grants as full-time artists do. That money – plus the public’s disposable income and wealthy art lovers’ charitable contributions – is how the Louisville Metro Area supports over 30 community theaters while the producers, directors, performers, and crew members go to work at their “real” jobs each day. A grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women is how I paid my own artist fees to adapt a screenplay into a stage play while I worked two part-time jobs in 2007. And keep in mind that the jobs in the non-profit art sector and at museums, theaters, and art centers that will get funding could just as well be administrative staff positions as they could be artists. A well-known, well-endowed theater here in Louisville has 18 people on its artistic staff roster, 58 crew members, and 49 administrative staff members. That doesn’t count interns who do the work for college credit.

We live in a society in which art is undervalued. Even as I write with new fervor, launch a freelance writing service, and hope that the 65,000+ media and advertising jobs that have disappeared since the beginning of the recession return, I think about how so many new artists will support themselves, and I wonder if a Secretary of the Arts could save me from living life laid off.


*To see provisions for the arts, go to and see pages 57-58 of the entire ARRA bill.

© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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Filed under Arts and Culture, Economy, Health, Layoffs, Lifestyles, Mental & Emotional Health, money, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment