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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The economy is recovering, right? Tell that to those desperate to find work. Read the headlines these days, and it seems there are two alternate realities. In one, the economy is not in bad shape at all: 2.5 percent GDP growth, record corporate cash reserves, hiring is going on, corporate profits the highest since such record-keeping began in 1947.
But in the other, unemployment is near double-digits, the percentage of Americans who can't afford food is worsening and access to basic life needs (like housing and healthcare) is at its lowest level since Gallup began tracking the figure.
To report what's going on in the other reality, here are three people on the front lines of America's Great Recession and their stories of what's happened to them, how they're managing to cope and how they're re-imagining their financial futures.
Jacqui Brownstein, 64
Nobody is more surprised than Jacqui Brownstein that she's still alive and kicking. Her mother died at 46, her younger sister at 56, her father at 61. Now she's got no family left, smokes "like a human chimney," and never expected to be around this long.
But here she is, living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and working as an editorial freelancer doing proofreading and indexing. Though she's approaching traditional retirement age, she still doesn't have a nickel put away; she had to raid her IRA in recent years just to pay for food and rent.
Up until about 2007 she was doing okay, making about $40,000 a year. She moved to Lancaster from New Jersey so her dollars would stretch a little further. Then "things started to go down gradually, and all of a sudden, wham," she remembers. "By 2008 I was up a creek without a paddle."
A main reason: Publishers started sending their projects to India, she says, with its millions of English-speakers who are willing and able to work for cheap. "Their cost of living is so much less, so to them it's a fortune. Publishers are trying to make a living too, and everything is done by computer these days anyways, so there's not much work left for people in this country."
Brownstein has been cutting back radically to make up for the income shortfall. She does less food shopping; frequents discount outlets and dollar stores, buys brands she's never heard of; and collects free samples from the Internet -- she has amassed enough mini bottles of shampoo to last her for a couple of years.
"You shouldn't be embarrassed about it," she advises others in the same position. "You don't have to be showy. You just have to survive, and do it the best way you know how. I'll be working until I die -- probably still on the computer, typing."
Melody Serra, 26
La Crescenta, California
Melody Serra knew she was coming into the job market during a pretty brutal time. Even though she wasn't slated to receive her Masters in Public Health from the University of Southern California until this past May, she first started applying for gigs in January, so she could hit the ground running.
But when even those five extra months didn't help, she began to realize just how deadly serious this Great Recession really is. "I've now been seeking a job for nearly a full calendar year," says Serra. "I knew I was going to have a pretty hard time, but I didn't expect to have no luck at all."
Being jobless is one thing, but Serra has something else weighing on her shoulders: Over $100,000 in student loans that she accumulated in getting her degree. "Bills and loan repayments have been coming in, and I've had no choice but to ignore them," she says. "My dad would help, but as it is he works over 16 hours per day just to pay his own bills."
She even created her own website in case others wanted to help her get out from under that massive debt (www.melodysdream.com). So far she's raised around $70.
"It's pretty daunting and worrisome. Sometimes I reach a point where I feel like giving up. It's so hard to stand up, when you feel like you'll just be brought back down again. But I've got to keep my head up, and keep on trying -- because what else can I do?"
Randall Roberts, 55
Randall Roberts hasn't just read headlines about the changing economy; he's experienced it first-hand. When Denver's Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, he was the last guy out the door.
"It was a very strange moment," Roberts says. "Before the last of us even left, they were ripping stuff out and tearing down walls for the next tenant. So every day we were reminded of the loss, and loneliness, and the dying of something great. Then I was the one who actually had to lock the doors and turn out the lights."
Roberts then started his own fine-art photography business -- which had some success, but not enough to pay all the bills. So he started looking for work in August, but can't even get anyone to respond to him, since most companies have automated their HR departments. "That's my frustration today," he says. "How do you even get past a computer firewall? How do you get spit out on the other end, to be seen by someone real?"
Roberts got a severance package from his old newspaper, but when his wife lost her job too, they both spent nine months out of work and eating into their savings. His wife has since found a new job, but as a household they're operating on about a third of their old income. That means cutting back on travel, on eating out, on fixing up their home or maintaining their car. "Things are getting pretty tough," he says. "We're watching everything we spend now, and putting everything into food and shelter at this point."
His advice for others, hunting for work in these tough times? "If you don't know this already, get ready to settle in for the long haul," he says. "I don't know what the magic answer is. I wish I did."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.
Editing by Jilian Mincer and Beth Gladstone