We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.
In May 2012, Richard Crowe was laid off when the steel mill where he had worked for thirty-four years was shut down. He’d worked there since graduating from high school. New ownership filed for bankruptcy.
“The judge threw the workers’ contract out, the owners walked away with $20 million, and we got nothing,” says Crowe, who is 54 and lives in eastern Ohio.
Seven months later, Crowe is one of 5 million “long-term” unemployed workers in the United States who have been looking for work for more than six months. They are disproportionately older (over 50), women, and minorities, and according to the most recent jobs report, their employment prospects haven’t much improved.
If Congress doesn’t extend the unemployment insurance program by the end of this year, 2 million of these workers will lose their benefits between Christmas and New Years Day, another 1 million by April 2013 and more than 5 million people will be without benefits by the end of 2013, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). This would occur at a moment when there are still 12 million people unemployed, and there are approximately 3.4 unemployed applicants for every available job opening.
“The jobs are still not there,” says Edith Harrison, 59, who lives in Colorado Springs and was laid off from her job at a senior assisted living facility in August. “How can you cut unemployment benefits off, and blame someone for not being able to get a job, when they didn’t create the situation?”
The anti-poverty effect of unemployment insurance is significant and undeniable. In 2010, the program lifted 3.2 million people above the poverty line (less than $18,000 for a family of three). In 2011, it lifted 2.3 million people above the line, including 620,000 children. (The program had less of a poverty reducing effect last year in part because a provision in the Recovery Act that paid an additional $25 per week in benefits was allowed to expire.) The average benefit is just $291 per week and it covers approximately 40 percent of a typical family’s food, housing and transportation costs.
What is most egregious to both Harrison and Crowe is the stereotype — voiced by people who want to cut the program or drug test benefit recipients — that unemployed people are lazy and would rather collect modest benefits than work.
“It’s funny, but it’s pathetic — a lot of people think you’re out here for a handout,” says Crowe. “I worked all my life. I paid into unemployment, I paid into Social Security, I paid into everything. I want off this unemployment, I want a job.”
In fact, Crowe has applied for 157 jobs. He and his wife are willing to relocate — they put their son through college and he is now living independently. Crowe has applied for jobs in Nevada and South Carolina — in the steel industry and in new lines of work.
“In the steel industry, companies are hiring 20-year-olds that have never even been in a mill before, and passing on people like me — an experienced operator and maintenance technician,” says Crowe. “Then you go look at other jobs and they say ‘you don’t have no experience.’ ”
He recalls applying for a job delivering packages for UPS. The interviewer looked over his resume and asked, “Pretty much you worked in the mill all your life?”
“Yeah,” Richard told her.
“Have you ever had any experience delivering packages?”
“I felt like telling her, ‘Yeah, once a year, I play Santa Claus,’ ” he tells me, laughing. “This is the stuff you go through.”
Harrison says she gets up early every morning — “ just like I’m going to work” — drinks her coffee, and gets on the computer to search for jobs.
“Retail, restaurants and customer service — most of the jobs out there — they say they want people who are ‘high energy’ for a ‘fast-paced environment’,” she says. “I’m not saying I can’t do it, but I’m 59, and if they have a choice they’re going to take the person who’s younger.”
Crowe also thinks his age is making it difficult for him to land a new opportunity. He has applied for many jobs knowing that he’s overqualified, including warehouse work. Often, he doesn’t even receive a reply, and sees the jobs still being posted months later.
“It’s my age holding me back. I can’t prove that, but I’m getting that feeling after going through all this,” he says. “If they see a 5 or 6 in front of your age — I’m just visualizing when people look at that they just laugh and throw your application off to the side.”
Unemployment benefits are a lifeline for Harrison and Crowe. In 2002, Harrison was laid off from her job as a secretary for the local school district. (She had also previously worked as a secretary in Detroit Public Schools for nineteen years, and as a case manager and skills development specialist for Goodwill Industries.) She ended up homeless, and sleeping on couches in the homes of families and friends. She fears it could happen again.
“I don’t want to go through that again,” she says. “How can you find a job if you don’t have anyplace to stay? When you’re out there, your life is just all up in the air. It takes a long time to come back from that.”
Harrison says her $227 per week benefit helps her “keep the lights on” and pay the rent.
Crowe receives $382 per week and says it covers his utilities and his car payment. He and his wife are also using their retirement savings “just to survive.”
“If they don’t renew these benefits, I won’t have any income,” says Crowe. “I’ll lose my house, I’ll lose everything.”
Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for NELP, says she is “cautiously optimistic” that unemployment insurance will be reauthorized for 2013 — either as part of any “grand bargain” or a more limited package of cuts and revenues prior to January 1. She notes that the $30 billion program was included in President Obama’s initial offer to Republicans to avert the fiscal cliff. She also says NELP has had lengthy and productive conversations with Democratic leadership, staff members for most of the Democratic Senate Caucus, and many House members as well.
“All of them really do understand how important and crucial this program is right now,” says Conti.
On the other hand, conservatives continue to demand that any reauthorization of unemployment insurance must be paid for, but Conti says that that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve through any bill that includes significant cuts and savings.
“We’re not really seeing the same kind of pushback we have seen in previous years,” says Conti, “where representatives have wanted to change the nature of the program, or beat up on the unemployed as lazy.”
It also can’t hurt that Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s, estimates that every $1 in unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in economic activity — since those benefits are spent so quickly. Also, the Congressional Budget Office found that reauthorizing the program for 2013 would create 300,000 jobs.
While she waits to see how this plays out in Congress, Harrison is doing her best to keep her spirits up.
“I used to stay on that computer from the beginning of the day to nighttime looking for work,” she said. “I would have a headache, wouldn’t even eat — had to make myself eat. Now I try to keep balance — get up early in the morning, get on that computer — and after so long and so many résumés, I stop. You don’t want to make yourself sick. I just stay prayerful.”
As for Crowe, he says the ordeal has taken a toll on his family — especially his wife, who he says “worries every day” as they try to cobble together enough money through unemployment benefits, her low-wage work and their retirement savings.
“I’m doing everything in my power that I can, but I can’t make someone hire me,” he says.