Stories of Americans Cut Off of Emergency Unemployment Compensation

It was a long and cold winter in Washington, DC, in more ways than one.

At the end of 2013, Congress allowed Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) to expire, leaving 1.3 million Americans who had been without work for more than six months suddenly cut off from their lifeline benefits. Unemployment benefits don't provide a lot – about $269 a week on average – but it is enough to put some food on the table, pay the most urgent bills, and hang on by your fingernails until work can be found. Without this support, many families are forced to drain their retirement accounts and sell their belongings. Some face homelessness.

Rather than dealing with the suffering caused by the expiration of EUC, some members of Congress have used hard-working Americans as a political football, demanding that EUC benefits be paid for with cuts to other programs. The Senate came to a funding compromise earlier this month, and now the action moves to the House.

Meanwhile the number of unemployed workers losing benefits marches steadily higher – growing by 72,000 each week. Since emergency benefits were cut off last December, an estimated $5.4 billion in economic activity has been lost, as the unemployed no longer spend those benefits in grocery stores, gas stations, and small businesses on Main Street. And congressional inaction could put the jobs of those still working at risk, too – if unemployment insurance is not extended, another 240,000 jobs could be lost this year.

click to enlarge

In a blog post titled "Emergency Unemployment Benefits Are Not Forgotten," the Center for Effective Government sought to remind our readers that real people are watching the posturing in Congress while waiting anxiously for assistance. We wrote about the tough job market and the difficulties average workers were having, even as the media lost interest and some congressional staff told us the issue was inconvenient.

The reaction to this short post was surprisingly powerful. The post was read by more than 100,000 people and inspired thousands of comments, many of them chronicling the suffering faced by families whose benefits were suddenly withdrawn.

These individuals were desperate, worried, and frustrated. For many of them, this was their first encounter with a federal assistance program, and, as individuals used to paying taxes and contributing to society, they were understandably baffled to be left out in the cold by elected representatives in their time of need.

One of the first commenters on the blog post, who self-identified as "Betsy," shared her story:

My husband was laid off in June 2013. He is an Oil Heating Technician in Massachusetts. […] As the months have rolled by he has still not secured a position. The job market is horrible. His Massachusetts unemployment ran out like 1.3 million other Americans in January. […] He has paid taxes. He isn't a law breaker. He is not a criminal. [H]owever our country is making us feel like losers. […] I think it is disgusting for the Republican [P]arty to hold our survival in the palms of their hands.

As the number of people left without assistance rose to just under two million – including teachers, military veterans, single parents, newly graduated young professionals, grandparents, and just about every imaginable demographic – and our blog followers grew, we started responding to the conversation they were having on our website.

To help our readers make their voices heard, we gathered contact information for congressional representatives, provided links to petitions to extend benefits, and shared the latest news and research on unemployment. In two follow-up blog posts (see here and here), we shared insight into the unemployment insurance extension debates on the Hill. Additionally, we encouraged readers to share their stories on our site so we could share them with policymakers and the media. Almost 1,000 of you have so far, and we’ve ensured that your stories made it to congressional staff.

Members of this online community encouraged one another to act. They made calls to congressional offices and shared what they had heard with one another. Some wrote letters to local newspapers, and others helped circulate petitions as a way of mobilizing greater awareness and political support. Readers shared the latest articles on unemployment found online and recommended resources for finding help.

The conversations were heart-wrenching. Commenters came from across the country, every socioeconomic background, and every profession. Many described themselves as apolitical, or self-identified as Republicans, who in the past had been very skeptical of federal assistance programs. Our staff was moved to tears by the earnestness, honesty, and pain in the stories that were piling up online.

A couple of weeks into the conversation, one of our regular commenters called the office and asked us to keep the blog comments section open because the visitors "had become a family and social support network." She emerged as a leader. Energetic, articulate, and inspiring, she provided encouragement and sympathy, directed others to resources, and reminded everyone to call their representatives and to check in with their local employment office officials. She fostered and embodied the online community that developed among our commenters.

As someone who has spent time answering phones in a Senate office, I knew that constituents calling into congressional offices do make a difference, even if the voices on the other side of the line sound cold and exhausted.

In a fourth blog post, we asked our readers to submit their stories, along with contact information, using a web form. We quickly collected hundreds of detailed stories of the hardship already caused by the failure to extend assistance.

Sorting the stories by state, we personally lugged hundreds of pages of stories and dropped them onto desks in the offices of 23 senators over two days.

In the middle of the second afternoon of delivering packets, the Senate bill to extend unemployment compensation passed a key procedural vote. With 10 Republicans crossing the aisle to ensure the unemployment extension received a vote, 65 senators voted to move the bill forward.

Shortly after, a staffer from Sen. Harry Reid's (D-NV) office called the Center for Effective Government thanking us for compiling the stories and inquiring about how he could reach out to a specific Nevadan. Her story was shared on the floor of the Senate on the day of the final Senate vote.

Here's that story:

I have worked since I was 14 years old, and I am currently 29 years old and a single mother who lost my job through no fault of my own. I was with the same company since I was 20 years old, and worked my up with hard work and dedication. I left that company managing 17 employees, who were directly under me. Since my benefits have expired I had to walk away from my apartment and all of my son['s] and my belongings. We have nothing. I worked so hard for so many years. We now live with my elderly grandmother in her small condo. My son and I sleep on an air mattress in the front room. I look for work every day, even though I have no money to get around. I have to borrow $20 here and there just to [get] my son to school. There have been times when I didn't even know how my son and I would eat at night. I signed him up for after school just to ensure he gets three meals a day. I am a hard-working American who wants to work and earn money, but I haven't been able to find work. Without these benefits my son and I have lost everything, and I'm afraid there's worse to come if EUC Benefits are not extend[ed] soon.

Sen. Reid's floor speech begins at minute 2:30 in a video available online. (The reference to this Nevadan's story can be found at minute 5:23 of the clip.)

On the evening of April 7, the Senate passed the unemployment bill. To follow up, we blogged again, asking for more stories for the House debate to come. In total, we have close to 1,000 stories from readers, which we are now sharing with House offices.

We have dropped off dauntingly large packets to House offices, including both Republicans and Democrats, and we will continue to deliver more. In response to our efforts, we have been contacted by the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), as well as the office of Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA).

When we left hundred-page packets of stories in each office, the response of the desk attendant in each office was almost always the same, as their eyes skimmed a few lines: "Are these all from different people?"

The highly personal stories touched people. Instead of hiding behind abstract budget arguments and numbers, these stories force people to see that the lives of real, fresh-and-blood humans are being harmed. This would not be possible without the courageous sharing of your stories. They create a counterpoint to the voices of professional lobbyists, business leaders, and party politicians, who all too often dominate the debate.

Packets of stories, sorted by state, have been delivered to 35 House offices and counting. The raw emotion they contain is mesmerizing. We have established a landing page, "Emergency Unemployment Benefits: Stories from Hard-Working Americans," featuring a few of these stories each day.

Here's a recent selection:

  • Milledgeville, Ohio: "I've had to move in with a friend, I've worked for 30 years, raised three college educated children. Never been on public assistance or unemployment, I'm 50 years old, I made $45,000 last year; I can't find a job making more than 9.50 an hour. I can't rent a place to live on that!!!! So I turned to the government in a different way and applied for a FOOD CARD, $186 a month and now receive Medicaid. It's a bad day when a bill for the rich is pushed through at a cost of $50 billion and myself and millions like me are hanging their heads in shame!!"

  • Panama City Beach, Florida: "I am a single father of two small children, a boy who is 5 and a little girl who is 3. I worked for a steel pipe company for over 6 years and loved my job. A couple years ago the company I worked for did a "downsizing" and I was laid off along with 20 other people[…]Unemployment isn't something that people are asking for just because they are lazy or do not want to work, it's something that some people need temporarily to be able to survive on. 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 and I hope the [S]enate and the [H]ouse realize that this extension needs to be passed for the people like myself that are trying to learn a career and get back in the workforce. It's not a handout for lazy people, it's a safety net for good hard working Americans that have fallen on hard times. It's the right thing to do to pass this extension. Put yourself in some of our shoes for a minute and maybe you'll realize it's the morally right thing to do."

  • Baltimore, Maryland: "I have just been on the phone for days, trying to save my house because even though I am educated @ 52, I cannot get a job to help myself, or my family who rely on me. My son who worked with me has been able to find part time jobs here and there, but not enough to pay the mortgage or even close. Once they cut my benefits, my hopes of keeping my house were gone. I cannot find assistance anywhere to save my property, except counsel on how to gracefully give it up. So very soon, 4 people ranging in age from 52 to 5 will have no place to live, and my grandson is autistic. [...] [T]he elected officials could have remedied this situation."

back to Blog