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Recovery Or Not, Some Still Feel Economic Pain


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record.

Something big happened last week. It didn't happen with a lot of fanfare but it does say a lot about the health of the U.S. economy. In short, the economy is doing well enough that the U.S. government is going to stop propping it up. We're talking about one particular crutch called quantitative easing, or QE for short. This was a program that had the Federal Reserve buying billions of dollars' worth of this government bonds to stimulate the economy. Now it's over.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: In the last 24 hours it was all about the Federal Reserve and QE3 coming to an end.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So say goodbye to new normal easy money. We're returning to old normal easy money.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That really emphasized the increases and improvements we have seen in the job market here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I actually think the Fed got it right.

MARTIN: But this recovery is uneven, and some Americans still feel mired in the Great Recession.

BETH MARFELL: My name is Beth Marfell (ph). I'm 24. I'm starting to see that it's going to be much more difficult than I was led to believe it would be, especially with just a Bachelor's degree in biology.

JOHN DIAMANDA: My name is John DiAmanda (ph), and I work at McDonald's in Oakland, California. I ran a company called Real Clean Windows, and mostly I washed windows.

KIM GRANT BROWN: My name is Kim Grant Brown. I have lived in Memphis since I was born, my whole life. I've built over 250 homes in the area.

MARTIN: In 2008, each of them started to see signs that the economy was faltering. Here's John DiAmanda.

DIAMANDA: That's the first thing you cut off when your shop's not selling as much, is you cut back on the janitorial work and the window cleaning.

MARTIN: Kim Grant Brown says at first, it felt like any other downward turn in the economy.

GRANT BROWN: You have your ups and downs in homebuilding. Homebuilding is very cyclical. So we thought it was just a dip.

MARTIN: It wasn't. She got fewer and fewer orders for new homes. The bills started to pile up.

GRANT BROWN: I know, personally, I paid to work for a couple years.

MARTIN: When you say you paid to work, that means you didn't draw a salary for a couple years?

GRANT BROWN: Absolutely not. No.

MARTIN: How did you get by?

GRANT BROWN: I've always been raised that you save in the good times so that you have money in the bad times. And I always paid my bills even though it was painful.

MARTIN: Around the same time, Beth Marfell was choosing her major at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She was drawn to the music school but she settled on science because she wanted something stable with a lot of career options.

MARFELL: I thought that I would, you know, have a few months of unemployment, taking odd jobs just to pay my bills. And then I thought, oh, within a month to three months I'll be employed. I'll have a job in science. I'll be starting my career. And that's just not what's happened.

MARTIN: A couple years into the recession, life was also getting a lot harder for John DiAmanda. His customer base was shrinking. So was his bank account. And when his car broke down, he couldn't get it fixed.

DIAMANDA: I ended up doing all the window cleaning by bus. So eventually, I wasn't even making enough to pay the rent. And I ended up getting evicted by my landlord.

MARTIN: So here we are in 2014. The economy is in recovery. How are these three Americans faring? Here is Kim Grant Brown of Memphis.

GRANT BROWN: Now we're doing great. We have had really wonderful years the last three years, actually. Definitely we're growing. We're expanding. We're hiring new people. Homebuilding is such a huge driver to the economy. Every house built creates three new jobs. And so you figure, if we're down nationwide, I know we're down by over half of what we should be. If we could just get the homebuilding industry revved up and going again, the job growth would be exponential.

MARTIN: But for John and Beth, everything feels far less certain. For the past four years, John has been working part-time at McDonald's. It's barely enough to cover his rent for a bedroom that he has to share. That is a huge disappointment.

DIAMANDA: I thought my future was more or less, you know, secure. You know, I had hopes, real good hopes of having a good retirement and getting married and having kids. Now it's kind of up in the air. I don't know what's going to happen. I still have a dream but it seems like, on the wage that I'm getting right now, it doesn't seem likely that I'm able to do that unless something changes.

MARTIN: And for the biology major Beth Marfell, she spent many months applying for lab research jobs. No luck. Too many people out there with Master's degrees competing for the same job, she tells me. Marfell is waiting tables and working as a part-time tour guide in Charlottesville. And even with $35,000 in student loans, she still hasn't given up on science.

MARFELL: In my dreams, I have my own lab, I'm doing my own research, and I have little underlings helping me out because, you know, it's that mad scientist dream, right.

MARTIN: But the life she's living now is not the one that she planned.

MARFELL: The narrative I've been given my entire life is you go to college, you get good grades, you'll get a good job. And so I did all these things, sometimes when I really didn't want to. And it's just not worked out.

MARTIN: We asked Kim, John, and Beth to tell us the one thing they've had to sacrifice in the recession that they'd like to get back. For Kim, it was dinners out with her family. For Beth, it was more specific.

MARFELL: Well, I can't wait to have a paycheck that's steady enough for me to go out and get a burger and fries without worrying about my rent the next month.

MARTIN: And John, when he lost his two-bedroom apartment, he had to downsize. He got rid of furniture, his suits, shoes, hundreds of books.

DIAMANDA: You know, imagine if you had to get rid of everything you owned except what you carried in a shopping cart.

MARTIN: Life has changed for John. He doesn't have his own business. But he is working. He has a safe place to sleep. It is a recovery of sorts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.