How One Woman Stays Upbeat Amid Financial Ruin

A daily battle between disappointment and optimism, which mirrors the overall economy.

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The two-year nightmare finally seemed like it was about to end. After leaving the troubled real estate industry, pursuing a dream job that didn't pan out, burning through her savings, maxing out her credit cards, and downsizing into a leaky two-bedroom shack, Karen DeSha finally found a good company interested in hiring her as a sales rep. Her first battery of interviews with a Maryland flooring firm went so well that they called the next day and asked her to meet the CEO. Things seemed to click at that meeting too, as DeSha explained her work history and her selling techniques. The CEO had one final question: Where had she attended college? She told the truth: She hadn't. That ended the discussion. The job never materialized.

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So DeSha (pronounced DeShay) continues to populate one of the subgroups that are often overlooked when the Labor Department releases its employment report every month. Technically, she's underemployed, since she has a part-time job stacking greeting cards at a Wal-Mart near her home in Bel Air, Md. But the job pays just $8.60 per hour, for no more than 14 hours a week—a fraction of the income that used to finance a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The rest of the time, the 54-year-old divorced mom looks for work, answers phone calls from collection agencies, and contemplates how she went from a six-figure income to dependence on food stamps. "I kept thinking I was doing something wrong," she says in a gentle North Carolina drawl. "Then I realized it's not my fault. It's a time in America that's very confusing, very different."

It's also a wrenching moment of truth for many Americans, as the recession finally winds down and a new economic order forms. Economists believe that many of the 8.4 million jobs lost during the recession are gone for good, as some industries undergo rapid transformation and many companies substitute new technology or cheap foreign labor for American workers. Many people who still have jobs are living on less pay, perhaps indefinitely. And as the flood waters recede, many workers are finding themselves cut off from the economic mainland, without the skills or direction to regain the lifestyles they enjoyed just a few years ago. The nationwide anxiety seems unique among post-war recessions: Even as the economy improves, surveys show that Americans are almost as gloomy as they were during the recession.

Karen DeSha doesn't consider herself downbeat. "When I rise each morning, I make a decision to be in a good mood regardless," she says. "Besides, so many others are having a worse time than I could even imagine." Still, DeSha didn't foresee her own troubles, and she's still adjusting to a sense of powerlessness that she never thought she'd experience. For 13 years she worked as a Realtor in North Carolina, mostly as an agent working directly with builders. Ease with people, pluck, and an edgy wit compensated for her lack of a degree and made her a natural salesperson. Her income fluctuated with the market, but during peak years in the 1990s she made more than $100,000. Her husband had a good job too, and their family was one of the more affluent in Salisbury, a small city in central North Carolina, just off I-85.

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DeSha took a few years off while her son went through middle school and high school. Her husband got transferred and the family moved to eastern Pennsylvania. Then when their son entered college, DeSha asked for a divorce that felt overdue. In 2007, she moved by herself back to North Carolina, this time to Asheville, the artsy retirement town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

She went back to what she knew—selling real estate—but it was a starkly different industry than the one she left in 2002. Some of the builders, drawn by the housing boom and fast money, had only been in business a few years. They were inexperienced, occasionally shady, and in over their heads. Selling got harder, too. DeSha was used to making six calls to notch one sale, on average. As the overheated market began to cool—then freeze—her 1-in-6 ratio rose to 1-in-30, then to 1-in-200. She was still earning good money, but working 75 hours a week to do it.

Finally, no number of phone calls would generate a sale. She took a different job in a planned retirement community, earning $5,000 per month plus commissions. But right about then, at the age of 52, she decided it was time to stop doing what she had always done. Instead, she would pursue a lifelong dream: acting. So DeSha quit her real estate job, entered a competition in Los Angeles, and got a bit part in a Tyler Perry movie. As she learned more about the business, she focused on getting work doing voice-overs. She moved from Asheville to Bel Air, Md., which was near her brother's family and much closer to New York, where she expected to travel for auditions. She even bought the equipment to do sound editing herself.

It was a bold move, but not necessarily rash. DeSha set aside six months of living expenses, figuring that would give her enough of a cushion before she started earning income at her new profession. As a single woman living alone, her expenses were low, and if things didn't work out she could always go back to what she knew and sell real estate again. "I'm so used to being successful that I just assumed I'd be successful at this," she says. "I didn't see why I would fail at anything."

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In normal times, it might have worked. But a few months after DeSha first went to Los Angeles, the stock market crashed, the recession mushroomed, and the housing bust decimated her old industry. Breaking into acting turned out to be harder than she thought and she made little money at it. And her backup plan collapsed: Suddenly, there were no jobs in real estate. Firms were impressed with her credentials, but with virtually no business, they didn't need additional salespeople. One agency after another told her they'd call when things picked up.

DeSha exhausted her six-month set-aside fund, then tapped into her savings, which was gone in another two months. Her credit had always been stellar, so she began to run up credit card balances. There was nothing unusual about that. In sales, income can be sporadic, and she would sometimes use credit cards to cover living expenses, then pay it all off when a commission check arrived. But this time there were no commission checks—only mounting bills.

She cut every expense she could, asked her family for help, and moved into a run-down Maryland farm house that she calls a "hovel:" "When my mother saw it, she said, 'They're paying you to live here, right?'" The rent is only $1,150—cheap for the area—but the roof leaks, there's mold, and she battles frequently with the strapped landlord about getting repairs done. Worse: At least three snakes have taken up residence in a utility room off the kitchen. DeSha has barricaded the door with an old encyclopedia set, but finds it hard to believe she's putting up with hardships that were unthinkable a few years ago.

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As a salesperson for 30 years, optimism, charisma, and humorous charm were DeSha's strongest assets. An acting career didn't seem like such a stretch. "Acting is what I did every day to sell," she says. "I'd have people rolling on the floor. Get 'em to laugh, they'll sign anything." Now, it's getting harder to laugh—and make others laugh. Like many Americans, DeSha realizes that something fundamental is changing in the economy, and that determination and attitude alone won't bring success. She has the energy and motivation to do whatever's necessary. The problem is, she doesn't know what that is, and the things that worked before no longer do. Not knowing how to help herself sometimes leaves her feeling depressed. "I'm a nervous wreck because I don't understand why I can't find my $100,000 job," she says. "My optimism comes and goes. I know I've got to get myself out of this. I just haven't quite figured out how yet."

She hasn't quit trying, though. DeSha continues to look for sales jobs and voice-over opportunities. She recently tried stand-up comedy at a club in Philadelphia. She's also working on a book manuscript about a high school friend of her son's who ended up in prison on a robbery charge and became a pen-pal confidant of her own, helping talk her through the "personal prison" of her own divorce. One New York publisher turned it down, but also sent a personalized rejection letter praising her efforts and encouraging her to try elsewhere—which DeSha counts as a breakthrough for a first-time writer.

She also follows the news closely and refutes the headlines touting an imminent recovery. Every job she has pursued has seemed like an illusion, and all around she sees others struggling the way she is. Two brothers are looking for work. Friends who used to make six figures in executive jobs are now telemarketers and janitors. And DeSha's frustration with Washington seems boundless: "I'm tired of senators acting like children, of people pointing fingers. Let's find a solution. I don't know what it is but there's got to be a solution."

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Meanwhile, the pressure intensifies. DeSha's family can't afford to support her anymore, which has forced her into the beginning stages of a bankruptcy filing. Her lease at the "hovel" ends soon, which will force her to move yet again. Where, she's not sure. And the calls from the bill collectors are as frequent as ever. "I get them talking, and they tell me they understand, they tell me how hard it was before they got the job with the collection agency. Then they say, 'Well, regrettably Ms. DeSha, we'll be calling you again tomorrow.' And I say, 'Cool. It will give me somebody to talk to.'" If only cheering up the bill collectors helped pay the bills.