Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

The American Nightmare: Long-Term Unemployment

A job seeker reads a copy of the California Job Journal as he waits in line to enter the California Job Journal HIREvent February 10, 2009 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
By Robin Stephenson

Updated: February 27

Too many families are watching the American dream unraveling right before their eyes. Their stories follow a pattern: after years of hard work, a job is lost. Hundreds of applications are filled out, but employers are slow to hire – especially if a job seeker has been out of work for a while. Savings fill the paycheck gap, but soon the savings are gone and then the retirement account is drained. For the first time, they find themselves standing in line at a food pantry and signing up for food stamps; they do everything they can, but the phone does not ring with a job offer. Long-term unemployment has become the American nightmare.

Emergency unemployment insurance for those who have been jobless for longer than 26 weeks expired in late December, and Congress has done nothing.

On February 6, in yet another close vote, the Senate failed to advance a bill to renew emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) by one vote. Passage could have helped 1.7 million job seekers who are struggling to survive without a paycheck — or an unemployment check. The Senate will try again, with another vote on extending unemployment insurance expected in the next few days.

When unemployment rates are high, lawmakers have always made provisions to help Americans until the economy returns to full employment — namely, by passing EUC. Today, the long-term unemployment rate remains twice as high as any time Congress has let emergency unemployment benefits expire.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) voted "no", even though 48,485 Ohioans have been cut off from their unemployment benefits. His could have been the vote that would've helped his constituent Vince Congiglio, an IT professional who is looking for work.

“I worked for a living—I paid into the system my entire life,” 53-year-old Congiglio told an MSNBC reporter after yesterday’s vote. “The first time in my life I ask for something, I get punched square in the gut.”

Another surprising "no" vote came from Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). Illinois has an unemployment rate of 8.6%, significantly higher than the national unemployment rate of 6.6%. Kirk has 99,000 constituents who desperately need an extension of unemployment benefits. He has said he would vote for an extension with a cost offset, which the legislation included, but apparently changed his mind. The congressional gridlock around extending unemployment benefits won’t help unemployed teacher Diana O’Conner; she needs solutions.

O'Connor, a constituent of Kirk's, lost her job last February. “We are not out of work because we are lazy,” O’Connor told The Chicago Tribune. Her story is a reminder that job loss can happen to anyone. "I'm your sister, I'm your neighbor, somebody you go to church with,” she said.

The final vote tally was 58-40. In a procedural move that allows the bill to be reintroduced at a later date, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) changed his vote to "no."

Congress goes back to the negotiating table, while for millions in America — and 72,000 more each week — the nightmare continues.

Robin Stephenson is the national lead for social media and senior regional organizer at Bread for the World.



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