SANTA ANA — Unemployment is more than statistics to Betsy Barta. She lost her photographer's job two weeks ago, may soon have to sell her car and her Laguna Hills home and believes that, at 50, her job prospects are dimming.
Still, as she stood in line to file for unemployment benefits Friday, she managed a laugh.
"It's so bad it's funny," said Barta, a photographer at a local coin dealership for five years until she and about a dozen others were laid off. She says it's been difficult to compete with younger, aspiring photographers.
"It's beyond contemplating. You either get out the razor blade or you laugh."
Barta is among the more than 61,000 Orange County residents who are looking for jobs these days, according to the most recent figures available from the state Employment Development Department.
The jobless tally is expected to rise due to seasonal layoffs in the retail and construction industries when the January figures are released later this month.
Local economists say that Orange County's unemployment picture still is brighter than the rest of the state. December's 4.4% local jobless rate was far below the statewide average of 7.7%, and even a 5% to 5.5% rate for Orange County in January would be substantially lower than the new state figure of 8.2%.
"I don't know why people are making such a big thing about the state and Los Angeles rates," said Esmael Adibi, director of the Center of Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange.
"Unemployment is the last variable in the equation. It only shows where you are coming from, not where you are going," Adibi said. "We expect the rates to go even a bit higher" as employers continue to thin their payrolls while waiting for the anticipated recovery.
But for those standing in long lines at the EDD's Job Service Center in Santa Ana, the county's low unemployment rate provides little comfort. Neither do economists' predictions that things will improve in six months or so.
Dozens of people--from skilled professionals with college degrees to at least one woman who identified herself as homeless--stood in lines at the center Friday, some to see if they were eligible for benefits, others to check on potential jobs.
Janoah Piper, 18 and pregnant, says she has trouble reconciling the long lines at the job center with the county's vaunted low unemployment.
Often after standing for hours in the job seekers' queues she is told to return another day "because there are too many people."
Piper said she lost her $9-an-hour job as an accounts receivable representative for an auto parts distributor in November and hasn't found work yet. She landed the job after graduating from high school and thought she had it made. She lived in an $800-a-month apartment in Tustin and was due for a $2-an-hour raise when she was laid off.
"I was living quite well," she said. "It's discouraging. I'll have to start from scratch and move back up again. I was doing good for a 17-year-old at the time."
Piper, whose baby is due in May, now lives with her parents in Orange.
Being unemployed, she said, is "discouraging because it makes you feel dirty and like you come from the poverty level. I came from a wealthy background. But these are my problems and I have to deal with it on my own."
Farther back in the same line Piper stood in Friday was a woman who sat in a lawn chair reading Gloria Steinem's "Revolution From Within" as she waited.
The 42-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she had been an instructor at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana until she was laid off in July.
She was also reluctant to reveal where she lived, but finally, with a rueful smile, owned up to being a resident of one of Orange County's poshest communities.
"Corona del Mar--hey, everybody is here," she said. "It's amazing how close we all are to being out of work."
Not everyone who has lost work ends up in the unemployment statistics.
The jobless rate, for instance, doesn't show those who have had their hours cut.
Samang Larsen, 46, and her co-worker, Saen Thanyachittaroj, 58, work for a photo lab in Costa Mesa that has turned several full-time employees into part-timers.
The two said they collect supplemental benefits from a federally funded program but still have to struggle to support their families.
"It's bad, very bad," Larsen said.
There also are thousands of so-called discouraged workers in Orange County--people who have been out of work so long they are no longer eligible for benefits and have quit trying to find work through normal channels.
Many of them wind up on Orange County's streets--portraits of poverty in a land of plenty.
"Most people give me money rather than work," said Gene, a middle-aged homeless man who was holding a sign reading "I will work for food" at the corner of Bristol Street and MacArthur Boulevard in Santa Ana on Friday afternoon.
"They just don't have the work. If they do, it's mostly gardening, usually only an hour or two," he said.
Gene--thin and gaunt with scraggly, sandy hair--wouldn't give his last name or age. "I don't want anyone to know," he said. "My parents know, but I don't want anyone else to know."
He said that even the handouts are drying up as the recession tightens its grip.
"Ever since Christmas it has been slow," he said. "I made $105 on Christmas Eve and $135 on Christmas Day. But I've only made $35 today."
Times staff writer John O'Dell contributed to this report.