Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fallen Through the Cracks

The last of my food supply

Right now, I’m debating whether or not to eat a box of macaroni and cheese.

I’m not debating whether I should eat it versus something else which would be decidedly more nutritious. I’m debating whether or not I should eat it, or go hungry another day. You see, I only have three boxes of macaroni and cheese left to my name. I have no other food in my apartment, and I currently have $9 left in my bank account. My Internet and mobile phone were turned off at the beginning of January, and my gas will probably be turned off in the next month. My electricity will eventually follow suit. The only reason I still have an apartment is because of the charity of family, however their finances are stretched too thin with almost half a million dollars in medical debt, and the costs associated with caring for an elderly matriarch in the last months of her life. The only way I am able to receive calls from potential employers is through an old flip phone loaned to me by a family member while I look for work. I’ve been living off macaroni and cheese since January, eating a box every second day in order to stretch what meager funds I had as far as they would last.

You may be asking, “But, Ashe, weren’t you in college? Did you ever graduate?” The answer is, yes. I graduated from NC State University in December 2012. I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and had a 3.44/4.00 Cumulative GPA, as well as a 3.75/4.00 Major GPA. It says so, right on my resume. I spent two years doing research for the Good Doctor, although, to be fair, that last semester I really slacked off since I had a small bout of depression, later followed by fear and anxiety associated with not having a job waiting for me when I graduated. My slacking showed, as the Good Doctor only gave me a B for the last semester in his lab, where previously I had made A’s. I really feel bad about that, and I feel that I left things off with him on a sour note, as a result.

While I did attempt to apply to graduate school, finances dictated that I could only afford to apply to one school, NC State. As anyone who has applied to graduate schools can tell you, it is not a good idea to place all of your hopes into one university. Unfortunately, I was a little too vague on my application when explaining what I wanted my research focus to be, and was rejected despite what one of the professors reviewing my application said were very good GPA and GRE scores.

The problem, as I see it, is that I am a bit afraid to tell any professor about my true goals for research. Ever since returning to college, I have had a dream of doing research which would lead to the creation of an artificial intelligence, which would reside on any mobile device, computer, or perhaps even a web-enabled television, that would be used mainly for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and some mild addiction disorders. Several problems get in the way of this research. One, I have no engineering or computer programming background, so I would not be creating the actual programming code, myself. Two, there is very little research in the psychological journals pertaining to the use of artificial intelligence, as it seems that psychologists have mostly ceded control over this area to the engineering field. And, three, since there aren’t any psychologists currently doing research into the use of artificial intelligence as a treatment for depression, there aren’t any researchers whose labs I can apply to work in as a graduate student. At NC State, we have an engineering department with faculty and students who would be of great use in the actual construction of the AI, but the closest thing to a psychologist who fits my needs focuses his research on studying the cognitive effects of playing video games in adults and the elderly. For my purposes, as one who has played video games since I was four years old, I see parallels between using AI for improving the cognitive and emotional well-being of adults with depression, and using video games, which are little more than graphical AIs which respond to player input, as a way of improving the cognitive functioning of older adults.

But, back to the original topic, since I had to postpone my dreams of attending graduate school by at least another year, I have been struggling to find work to support myself. Without Internet access at home, I take my laptop back and forth to the campus library so that I can use the WiFi for a few hours each day to look through job postings on numerous websites, hoping for the few jobs that I am vaguely qualified for, so that I can submit my resume and cover letter for jobs which probably have several hundred other people applying, as well.  In the months since I have been looking for work, I have only received a half dozen or so phone calls about my resume, most from staffing agencies, and none which ever progressed to a face-to-face interview. With 7.7% unemployment in the Triangle area, and around 9.5% statewide, I estimate that around 80,000 people are without work right now in my hometown, so it is in the companies’ favor to be as picky as they desire. It isn’t uncommon for employers to demand 5+ years of experience for jobs that they even admit only require a high school or Associates degree level of education. And, since I was making $21,000 when I left the radio station, I don’t feel that I am out of my mind to request a base salary of $30,000 now that I have spent the last five years earning a Bachelor’s degree. That isn’t to say that I haven’t attempted to apply for grunt work jobs. I have applied to three grocery stores, two fast food sandwich shops, and a convenience store. None of them were offering more than $9 an hour, and none of them ever called me back. I am guessing that I fall somewhere in the middle of employment preferences, now. I’m too well-educated for grunt work, and not well-educated enough, or at least lacking some excessively specific knowledge, for good jobs.

NC State gives its students a free bus pass so that students can ride city buses without having to pay. Unfortunately, that was revoked in early March, since I am no longer attending the school as a student. So, with only $9 in the bank, and $10 in cash on me, I can’t afford to ride a city bus any more than is absolutely necessary, meaning that I can only go back and forth to campus during the week, when the college buses, which anyone can ride for free, are running by my apartment. Since I don’t have a car, and certainly cannot afford one at the moment, I am trying to save the $10 in cash so that I might be able to ride back and forth to some job interviews, should I actually make it that far. I haven’t quite figured out how I will afford to ride the bus back and forth to an actual job, if I’m so lucky as to get one, but I do still own a bicycle, and I suppose I could struggle with it for a few weeks until my first payday, assuming the job isn’t in Durham or RTP.

As to more immediate needs, however, I attempted to apply for food assistance from the state on March 1st. The Health and Human Services website says that if you are in need of emergency food assistance, meaning you currently have less than $100 to your name, you have a right to receive benefits from the food assistance program within seven days. Unfortunately, as history in the US has told us, just because you have a right to vote doesn’t mean you can; just because you have a right to receive equal pay for equal work doesn’t mean you can; and just because you have a right to receive emergency food assistance within seven days doesn’t mean you can. I waited for two weeks to hear from a case worker about my application, but eventually called the office, only to get a run around through an automated phone system. After some persistence, I was able to get a direct line for my case worker, but after numerous attempts to call her, all I got was an answering system, and a message not to leave more than one message in any 24-hour period. Presumably, if my application isn’t processed and approved within 30 days it is voided. I have no idea what to do beyond that, other than attempt to re-apply, and hope for the best during the next 30 days. I found data on the Health and Human Services website showing that well over 1000 people applied for food assistance in Wake County in February. I can only hope that most of them didn’t have as much difficulty as I have had in receiving food aid.

I would apply for unemployment benefits; however, the state requires that you had to have worked at some time during the last twelve calendar months in order to receive benefits. Since I didn’t work, and was in college full time during all of 2012, I do not qualify for unemployment benefits. They also have other restrictions, such as you cannot have been fired, and I don’t think you are allowed to quit of your own choosing, either. So, really, I can’t imagine what sort of limited circumstances one is allowed to collect unemployment for beyond company layoffs. And, since unemployment rolls are used to determine employment figures in the state, and nationally, I suspect that the 9.5% unemployment rate statewide is a gross under-representation of the real unemployment problem in the state. Couple this knowledge with newly-minted Governor Pat McCrory’s plan which reduces monthly unemployment benefits for recipients, as well as reduce the length of benefit enrollment, and it is clear that things are going to continue to be painful for a great number of people just like me.

I have no idea what I am going to do, or how I will be able to survive beyond the next month or two. I suppose I’ll save that box of macaroni and cheese for one more day.

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