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ELKHART -- While pushing her cart through the food aisle at Church Community Services, the woman talked about having had a good week because she worked three days.
The economic recession has slashed her 40-hour a week job down to about 20 hours although one week she only worked seven hours and another week just three. Making $7.50 an hour, she occasionally has seen her household budget dwindle to allow only $7 for food and $10 for gas but still sometimes she and her husband skip meals and other times she walks two hours across town to get to her job.
"You be savvy," she said. "You be smart and you can make it."
The woman, Jayne Kupgisch of Elkhart, is among the growing ranks of the underemployed. These are the workers who have had their full-time jobs cut to part-time. Those who are classified as "marginally attached" are the workers who have become so discouraged looking for work that they have just dropped out of the labor force.
By definition, they are a difficult group to track and estimates are tabulated only for the entire country rather then individual states or cities. Since January, the number of Americans who are working part-time for economic reasons has risen nearly 2 million to 6.70 million in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although they are still receiving paychecks, the underemployed struggle because their income exceeds the limits for many government assistance programs. Moreover, as associate professor of economics at Goshen College Jerrell Ross Richer pointed out, these workers are stuck in their current situation.
During times of low unemployment, workers have had the option of going across the street and getting another job if their wages or hours were cut by their employer.
"These are not normal times," Richer said. "There is no across the street."
Melissa Spires of Bristol has been searching for work since her restaurant job has been reduced from 40 hours a week to about 30 hours. The single mother of three noted that although her income has decreased, her transportation and daycare costs have remained much the same.
On her days off, she has been searching for another job but, she has learned, no one is hiring.
"It's so hard to find anybody now that will even give you a chance," Spires said. "I am hanging on to what I have."
Keeping their jobs, no matter how few hours, give the underemployed an advantage. Richer explained those workers are still learning and networking so when the economy does rebound, they will be in a better position to get a promotion.
"If there's a choice," Richer said, "I think it's much better to stick it out."
Kupgisch knows about sticking it out or, as she bluntly described it, "surviving." She has no cable television, no phone and she relies on a local charitable clinic for her medication. She buys 24-packs of Ramen Noodles at the grocery for $2 and, when she is able to afford it, stirs in a can of mixed vegetables or tuna.
Also, prior to receiving a gift from a co-worker of T-shirts and two pair of shoes, she made do with one shirt which she washed and wore everyday.
"You don't care what people think about you," Kupgisch said. "You do what you got to do."
And she continually remembers there are other people living under more strain. In particular she recalled the man behind her in line at Church Community Services. He could not take many of the food items because he was homeless and did not have a can opener.
"I'm alive," she said. "I could be dead. I could be in the gutter somewhere. I could be on the street."