Listen to Denise's story. Audio Producer: Laura Bult
Listen to Kenneth Carr, Denise's dad. Audio Producer: Laura Bult

On a quiet street in suburban Modesto, California, an American flag hangs from the ranch-style house where Denise Roberts grew up and where she now lives again with her retired parents. With a college education and a paralegal degree, the 38-year-old unemployed single mother never imagined she and her daughter would have to move back in with her parents. But a sluggish economy, a weak labor market and a severe drought affecting agriculture — the leading industry in California’s Central Valley — have made it difficult for Roberts to find a job in the last two years. “I think you have the fantasy that you graduate, you have a degree and that someone is going to hire you,” said Roberts. “I lived that fantasy…And I got a rude awakening.” This is the first time in her life she has ever had trouble finding work though has continued volunteering for no pay in the meantime. She’s applied for jobs at department stores, doctor’s offices. “Anywhere I could get my foot in the door.” But she hasn’t had much luck. She hasconsidered flipping burgers are McDonald’s, but doubts they would hire her because of her age. Choking back tears, she says that if it weren’t for her parents, she and her daughter would probably be living on the street. “I’m one of the luckier ones,” she says. Her father Kenneth Carr said it’s hard watching his daughter struggle and he wishes the government would do more to create jobs, for instance through things like public works projects. “Between the drought and the unemployment that we are going through now, this is the closest thing we’ll see in our lifetime to a Depression, says Carr. “It’s really a mess right now.”

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"What matters, then, given the current rules if the game, is what kind of opportunity the labor market offers to poor workers, and who among them is positioned to seize it."

- Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market, by Katherine Newman

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