Editor's Note: This story is part of Project 573, an in-depth multimedia report by 12 seniors in the Missouri School of Journalism. Through the stories of mid-Missourians, the project explores the impact of the Great Recession on American life. To see the whole project, "The American Response," go to the Project 573 website.
MEXICO, Mo. — Kylie Nichols is back to where she was almost a year ago.
Last June, Nichols, a 32-year-old single mother, was laid off. She finally found a job in February at US Cable in Mexico, Mo., where she lives. After one month and one day on the job, she was fired following a disagreement with her boss concerning her salary.
On April 8, the day she was fired, Nichols went home and applied for four jobs. Within four days, she had applied for eight jobs.
For Nichols, applying for jobs is like washing dishes. She doesn’t have to think about how to do it anymore.
Submit resume and application. Wait one week. Call to follow up.
She even has a schedule. She looks for jobs – mainly in the newspaper and online – on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Job postings stay up for at least two days, she says, so to keep from stressing too much, she checks them every other day.
“I’ve got this thing down,” says Nichols, who wears her auburn hair swept back into a loose ponytail.
For someone who’s been unemployed for most of the past year, Nichols is as savvy as they come. She still remembers tips she learned from a professional development class in 1993 — when she was in high school — and she uses them. She is upfront, committed and mature. She speaks with the confidence of a guidance counselor.
But she’s struggling.
Last June, Nichols lost her job with the Northeast Missouri Workforce Investment Board. Because of budget cuts, the program she worked for was eliminated. She went on unemployment status, and she stayed there for eight months.
Previously, she had only been unemployed for two months, in 2000. For six years, she held a well-paying corporate sales job in Mexico, Mo., with Brookstone, a high-end gadget store found in malls across the country.
Knowing that her state job was at risk in the midst of a recession, Nichols began sending out her resume a month before she was officially laid off.
Other than a part-time insurance job that lasted just a month, nothing worked out. For three-quarters of a year, she sat at home. She began losing her feeling of self-worth. Winter came. Winter wore on.
“You can only shovel so much snow,” she says.
The whole time, though, she found a way to get by.
Because she made more than $30,000 during the year before she was laid off, she received $277 per week after taxes in unemployment, just under the maximum amount.
That wasn’t enough, so Nichols and her 13-year-old daughter Miranda found ways to save money.
They stopped buying snack foods and soda. Instead of buying bottles of Gatorade, they bought the powder mix. They went out for pizza once a month, not once a week. They turned off lights when leaving rooms, watched less TV, took shorter showers and stopped blow-drying their hair.
Nichols smoked fewer cigarettes. Before opening her laptop and getting on the Internet, she wrote down what she wanted to search for to keep organized and save electricity. She got rid of the home phone line and used only her cellphone. She switched to a cheaper cable service.
That wasn’t enough.
Her parents helped out when they could to make sure Nichols’ electricity stayed on. Her boyfriend, Daniel, and sister, Pam, helped out occasionally with “extras” — things such as entertainment and new clothes, Nichols says.
She worked out a deal with the owner of her mobile home. To cover what she couldn’t pay in rent, she volunteered to sell some of his items on eBay.
Still, that wasn’t always enough.
For a couple months, she thought, “What don’t I pay this time around?”
So Nichols started calling the electric company. She says she didn’t have the money to pay her entire bill. She worked out a deal to pay a certain amount a week until the bills were paid. She kept in constant contact with the company, which appreciated her straightforward communication and helped her make her payments.
Each time, she found a way.
Then, finally, she found a job.
She was enjoying it. She was making $100 a week in commission.
“It was nice being able to get up and go to work, have a sense of worth,” she says.
Now it’s gone, again.
When Nichols told her 13-year-old daughter Miranda that she finally found a job, Miranda jumped up and down. She was excited for her mom. She knew her mom hated sitting around all day.
She was also excited about going out to eat more often and buying new clothes.
“It kind of stunk having to tell her [I lost the job],” Nichols says. “But she understands.”
After Nichols first became unemployed last June, Miranda told her mom she didn’t need to drink soda anymore. When meeting with friends, she asked her friends if their parents could pick her up so her mom didn’t have to use gas.
“She’s kind of more of an adult than a kid anymore,” Pam Deimeke, Nichols’ sister, who recently took Miranda shopping to help Nichols, says.
Four days after losing her latest job, Nichols took Miranda out for Chinese food. Nichols had planned to use the money she made from commission to pay old medical bills. But doing something for Miranda was important.
Miranda, a sixth-grader, is in her first year of junior high and her first year at a public school since third grade — she attended a Catholic elementary school through third grade. Since early March, several of Miranda’s classmates have been bullying her, which triggered the return of her agoraphobia — an anxiety disorder that causes people to fear open or public spaces. Miranda struggled with the disorder throughout her childhood, missing a full year of school, but was able to stop taking medication for it in June 2009 after almost two years of therapy. Miranda also experiences symptoms from post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from a trauma she faced when she was 4.
When the bullying started, Miranda became depressed and stopped eating. She missed several days of school.
“I hate school,” she told Nichols.
She is now taking medication again. Although she’s eating more, the medication makes her tired. She recently asked her mom to drive her to school instead of taking the bus so she could get a few extra minutes of sleep.
Nichols wants to bring Miranda back to the therapist who helped her control the disorder. Miranda responds better to therapy than medication, Nichols said. But Miranda will have to wait until June, when Nichols can switch Miranda’s insurance to a program that covers long-term therapy. Nichols can’t bring Miranda back sooner because she can’t afford it.
With the problems going on at school, the news that her mom lost her job again was hard on Miranda.
“Right now she feels like everything’s raining down at once,” Nichols says.
Most of the time, Nichols’ voice resembles an upbeat, go-get-'em 32-year-old who’s got things figured out.
At times, though, such as when she talks about not being able to buy Miranda new clothes, her voice, normally optimistic and sharp, lowers.
“Yeah, it’s been a stressful last few weeks,” she says. “There’s been days where I’ve been at the end of my rope.”
She doesn’t show it to most people, but Nichols has breakdowns, her sister says.
“We’re all trying our best, especially when we have kids,” Deimeke says. Deimeke has a 5-year-old son and will lose her contracted job conducting maintenance at veteran homes within the next month. “We have to … Really around the kids, you have to keep it inside.
“That’s how we were brought up,” Deimeke says. “We had really hard times when we were kids, and my parents never showed it toward us. One day at a time. It’ll get better.”
Nichols puts on a “happy face” in the morning, Deimeke says. But she can’t always wear it.
To get the stress out, Nichols goes fishing with her boyfriend or drives somewhere with her sister.
“We’ll go driving around, and we’ll go to Walmart and be stupid,” Deimeke says.
On one bad-day trip to Walmart, they grabbed a pair of Superman underwear, ran into the middle of an aisle and shouted at a man:
“Baby, I found your underwear! You lost it!”
“His face turned red,” Deimeke says, laughing.
“Some people say (that’s) immature, but I’d rather be immature and have a little fun in hard times.”
Nichols says she knows people who have been on unemployment for three years because they have no desire to get up and go to work.
“And here I am; I want to get up and go to work,” she says. “I can’t find something that’s suitable for a single parent. I need to be home in the evening. I need to be home on the weekends with her. It’s not just a personal choice. I’m the only parent she has.”
Nichols filed for unemployment again and will start receiving $277 per week. She is eligible for unemployment until July. She and Miranda also receive food stamps, and Miranda receives Medicaid.
Nichols must apply for at least two jobs each week to continue to be eligible. That’s not a problem for her.
“For me, it’s just easier for me to plug away and keep going,” Nichols says.
One day, that could mean cleaning the entire house. The next, applying for a handful of jobs.
Nichols says she’s willing to take just about any job as long as the hours are right, which is the tough part. Her background is in sales, but she’s looked into jobs at factories, an emergency dispatch call center and an appliance repair center.
In her cover letter to the appliance repair center, she wrote, “I know I’m not qualified, but I’m willing to learn.”
When she calls employers after she turns in a job application, she asks, “Can you mark my resume and note that I called in to follow up?”
Although she’s willing to do just about anything, she needs to find a job nearby. With gas prices climbing — she recently paid $80 to fill her Chevy Trailblazer — she can’t afford to commute far away.
“In this community, Kylie and I know a lot of people,” Deimeke says. “So it used to be, you lost a job you can get another. Now, it’s not like that at all. Now, we’re struggling just to find little things.”
In the mean time, Nichols will find ways to get by. She says her sister and parents have enough on their plates, so she doesn’t want to ask them for help.
So she’ll try even harder to cut her expenses. She broke a two-year satellite TV contract and will get rid of cable altogether to save money. She’s getting rid of her Blackberry and switching to a cheaper phone and plan, which she says will save $100 a month. She’ll make fewer trips to town to conserve gas. But there’s only so much she can do.
“What’s left to trim?” she says. “There’s really not a lot left to trim.”
She has to keep her Internet service so she can search and apply for jobs. She wants Miranda to have fun things to do, so she’ll keep her $10 a month Netflix subscription, which is cheaper than making a trip to the video rental store, she says.
She’ll find a way, she says.
“I was barely making it, and I’m tired of barely making it, so let’s cut more stuff out and see if we can do a little bit better than barely,” she says.
Before leaving the room, she turns off the TV, which was tuned to the country music station — nice morning music, she says. But it doesn’t need to be on now.