Kerry Blackburn faced an impossible choice.
Her parents usually watched her daughter while she was at work as a customer service representative, but COVID-19 made the arrangement impossible. Both of them are older than 70, and her father is battling cancer. The only day-care option in the small Virginia town where Blackburn lives is the YMCA, but it temporarily closed along with everything else. It eventually reopened with an impossibly long wait list.
The 25-year-old single mother took a leave of absence when the pandemic started, but come late July, her employer said she had to come in to keep her job. She had two options.
“I could just not show up, and be fired,” Blackburn recalled Tuesday. “Or I could resign and have a chance at being hired back when I find child care. I resigned.”
She hasn’t received a paycheck since April 30, and she’s had trouble collecting unemployment.
“I have $32 left in my bank account and $26 until I max my final credit card,” she said. She’s put in 216 applications for jobs that allow her to work from home but hasn’t received a single call back.
“I’m at wits’ end and honestly so scared,” Blackburn said. “I don’t know what to do any more and the people above us don’t care just so long as their pockets are full.”
Desperate, she went online and found light in an unexpected place: A Reddit discussion group called r/Unemployment, where anonymous users share their personal stories, trade tips on navigating unemployment offices, aggregate news articles and ask for (and give) support — both logistical and emotional. The subreddit has grown from 5,000 subscribers in mid-April to 38,000, becoming a help center and a makeshift support group for some of the 28 million Americans unemployed as of Aug. 1, during the worst recession since the Great Depression.
“I didn’t join the sub expecting such decent people. I expected so many telling me how terrible I was, (that) I was a leech on the system, (that) their tax dollars cover me,” Blackburn said. Instead she found “people who want to help … friends in the darkest times.”
One Redditor sent her $90 to cover her water bill, a debt she promises to repay. Another messaged her with a tip on how to actually reach a person at her local unemployment office. It worked.
Her story is unique but familiar to those who frequent r/Unemployment, one of the largest and most active examples of the many unemployment and mutual aid groups online, stretching from Reddit to Facebook.
One Texas-based user named Cassandra found the subreddit after she and her husband lost their jobs to the pandemic and everything else to an April tornado. They moved into a trailer park, where they eat rice for most meals. “With the subreddit, I find that my fellow Americans are in this struggle with me and I don’t feel like a lazy degenerate who only sits around and collects a check, like so many politicians want you to feel,” she said via email. “It is comfort, it’s a bond, it’s hope, my beacon of light in this long dark night.” (Because of the anonymous nature of Reddit and the personal nature of these anecdotes, some people quoted in this story asked that The Washington Post not use their full name.)
Brody Osterbuhr, a 26-year-old Sioux City resident who previously worked for Andrew Yang’s Democratic presidential campaign, recently discovered he has a brain tumor that affects how he deals with stress. Worried about taking care of his wife and 2-year-old child while unemployed during a pandemic, he found himself falling into depression. To help out, one Reddit user sent his family a box from the meal kit service Green Chef, a small gesture that made a world of difference.
“I am getting three meals with two servings each for free. That’s normally $80. It helps take the stress off of figuring out what we are going to make for a few days at least,” Osterbuhr said. “I also can’t emphasize enough how much that little act of kindness from a total stranger reduced my stress levels.”
Users join the subreddit for different reasons. Some have questions. Some are desperate. Some want to help. Some have nowhere else to turn. Many will start their post’s title with their state name, to help localize the discussion. Multiple users stressed that r/unemployment proved the only place they could find reasonable advice on navigating the unsolvable maze of bureaucracy.
A striking aspect of the subreddit is how it brings people together regardless of their politics — an anomaly in our divided America. Unemployment has a tendency to wash away differences. Socialists, libertarians and everyone in between fill the discussion, and everyone gets something slightly different out of it.
Paul Perry III is a 26-year-old, recently unemployed petroleum engineer in West Virginia who describes himself as a”strong conservative who is disgusted with the politics on both sides of the aisle” and who (jokingly? semi-jokingly? completely seriously?) ends an interview by saying, “You’re fake news! Sorry, I had to!” What news source does he use? The subreddit.
“Rather than me going to a bunch of news websites and trying to sift through everything, it does the heavy lifting for me,” Perry said. While “the resources there are invaluable,” he also finds a certain hope in the kindness he finds there, “people helping people for no reason other than their moral guidance.”
The subreddit has even spun off another, r/RedditMutualAid, dedicated to sending financial assistance. People have donated to help other Redditors purchase dog food and medications, fix their cars and avoid having their power shut down. Its creator, Denise, didn’t expect much when she started it but said it’s “amazing to see exactly how many people out there are willing to extend a hand in solidarity and in faith. Not of God or government, but faith in our fellow man.”
That all of this is happening on an anonymous message board and not on Capitol Hill is a constant source of conversation, as Congress struggles to pass a new relief bill. One user told The Post via a direct message on Reddit that “the theme here is that the need of assistance has been SO great, and the lack of communication so deafeningly silent, Americans have had to turn to our communities and literally crowdsource info in a desperate attempt to figure out what the (expletive) is going on.”
“We have to support each other until this entire nightmare is over because our leaders don’t care,” another user said.
Denise has a simple question for government officials: “Why is a group of strangers, organized only through a guiding principle of human decency and kindness, more successful at providing complete and necessary aid to those that ask for it than they have been?”
Perry, who has lost faith in his Republican Party and harbors a general distrust of government institutions, wishes some of the suits in Washington would scroll through for a bit.
“It would be nice to have these politicians look at that subreddit and follow it and see the personal stories of people struggling,” Perry said. “But I think so many of them have been in office for so long that they’re just numb, and they just don’t care about their constituents anymore.”