Hard Times USA

Witness Wednesday Protests Launched In Washington To Highlight Tragedy of Longterm Unemployed

Three million American lives fall apart and not a single Republican lifts a finger to help.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Ricardo Reitmeyer

In the sweltering mid-day Washington, DC heat yesterday, a small group of members of Congress and community leaders gathered outside of the capitol building.

Solemnly, as if at a funeral, they read a handful of stories written by a few of the more than 3 million Americans who are longterm unemployed (a category defined as being unemployed for six months or more and still looking for work). Since December 2013, when Congress let emergency unemployment compensation, or EUC, expire—a program that offers minimal financial support to the longterm unemployed—they have been without the help they need to get back on their feet.

The somber tone of Wednesday's event was appropriate: for many of these 3 million Americans, the demise of EUC was a death knell for their dreams and their normal lives. Story after story recounted jobs unexpectedly lost, cars sold, house payments missed, and education foregone in an attempt to keep things afloat.

"My significant other of 12 years also worked for the same company and also lost his job. He has cancer," one story went. "Neither of us can find a job. We have no money left, no money for medications, and for the first time in our lives, we don't have enough to pay our rent this month…We have lost everything."

"I spend 10 hours a day applying for jobs and countless interviews, always coming in second to the competition," went another. "We are now faced with taking money from our children's college fund and our pension/IRA."

"I am a single father of two small children, a boy who is 5 and a little girl who is 3," went another. "I am 33 years old and have worked since I was 15 years old paying my taxes and never asking for a handout, but now I truly need one."

Yesterday's event was the kick-off of a series of readings that will take place throughout the summer to put pressure on Congress to reinstate EUC. Called Witness Wednesdays and organized by a coalition of national and community-based policy, faith, and justice organizations, members of Congress and community leaders will gather each Wednesday until Congress' summer recess begins in August to read stories submitted by those battling longterm unemployment. They're hoping to reach the hearts and minds of policy makers who remain committed to letting the longterm unemployed continue to suffer.

"If we can get people to hear their stories, we think it can really move people to make a difference," Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government (CEG), which is helping to organize the series of events, told AlterNet. 

A key target of Witness Wednesdays is Republican leadership in the House. While a bill has been passed in the Senate that would retroactively reinstate EUC, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to allow a vote on a similar measure in the House.

"It would take little or no effort at all for the Republican leadership to take this to the floor," Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) commented at the event. "It's really clear that it's the Republican leadership's intent to simply run out the clock until we stop talking about it…but people are still losing their houses, their cars, their apartments, splitting up their families, creating a first generation of what will be a cycle of poverty, all because Republicans won't give us two minutes to vote on this in the floor of the House."

Not a single Republican lawmaker attended Wednesday's event.

Nor did a longterm unemployed American.

Unable to afford a ticket to Washington, or even a tank of gas or metro ticket if they live close by, they remain at home, where they continue to organize in communities across America.

Outside the Beltway

One such person is Debra, who spoke to AlterNet from her home in Austin, Texas. A 48-year-old single mom, Debra was laid off a year ago from a job she worked at for three years. She was let go the day before she would have received her annual vacation and other benefits. 

Debra got by for six months on unemployment benefits. When that finally ran out, she was relieved that EUC would help her keep her head above water. But the program stopped a week after she received her first EUC check. 

Saying she felt "left behind" by Congress, Debra educated herself and organized. She hit the web, reading CEG blogs on the issue. She and other longterm unemployed commented on the posts, and started regularly sharing their experiences and organizing tactics with each other. 

In doing so, she says she learned how dysfunctional Congress really was. "I just figured, okay, they're up in Washington, doing their thing, they're doing their job that we sent them up there to do, and everything's peachy keen. But why are the Democrats on our side and the Republicans aren't? And why won't [Boehner] allow [a vote]? Because he's mad at Obama and the Senate won't pass any of his bills and so he won't allow any of their bills?"

"You feel like a pawn," she continues. "And the Democrats are on our side, but are they really on our side, or are they just trying to get re-elected?"

Debra's new reality has left her feeling betrayed by her party. Growing up in a Republican household, she understood that "if you were a hardworking American and you were tired of money going to those who don't work, you were Republican. I thought I was Republican, because I thought I was one of the ones who was working middle-class. But it doesn't seem like Republicans are for anybody unless they're filthy rich."

She also feels betrayed by her fellow Americans. "It's hard enough being unemployed, but then there are people who personally attack the unemployed," she says. "They say something so personal like, 'oh you bums, just go get a job.' You don't need to be pushed down any farther than you already are…We want to work, we don't want handouts, but we also need money to get back all the money we lost from our savings and our 401k."

Finally, she feels betrayed by the American dream. "This is what I thought I was supposed to do: work hard, get a bit of money, get a house, get a car. I had just bought a new car with cash, after driving the same car for 14 years. I thought I was doing everything I should be doing. And then suddenly you're unemployed." While she's considered going back to school, "I can't go to school without money, and I can't get a loan without a job." 

Debra is still living in the home she owns, where she's lived for 10 years. But some of those she's met through CEG have been less fortunate. Many are now homeless. It's hard to get in touch with them, making organizing difficult. "People say 'why don't you do something, why don't you go march on Washington' but we don't have the resources to do that," she says. 

Debra herself may face harder times down the road. Without money coming in, she's worried she won't be able to make her monthly payments on the house in the near future. In the meantime, she'll keep fighting, organizing events in her hometown, calling and writing members of Congress—a tenacity that Rep. Kildee relishes. "If [the longterm unemployed] speak to their congressional offices and not feel disenfranchised, not feel disconnected, and know that they actually have a voice, I think we can turn some Republican offices back on this issue," he says.

"I don't know what else to do, but to keep on keepin' on," Debra says. She's looking to those in Washington to fight alongside her. For her part, McFate assured, "we'll be here next Wednesday." 

WatchRep. Dan Kildee reading stories of the longterm unemployed on the House Floor. Read some of the stories and sign the Center for Effective Government's petition calling for Congress to re-instate EUC.

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a freelance journalist covering health, policy and the environment. 

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