The Common Good

Unemployment, the Vote, and Hope

I stood in line and waited until they called my number.

Lisa Sharon Harper/Sojourners
President Obama speaks after the Senate cleared a three-month extension of Unemployment benefits. Lisa Sharon Harper/Sojourners

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“Neeeext,” the woman behind the counter called!

The woman put out an energy that dared anyone to cross her, challenge her, even speak to her. She gave me a pile of papers to fill out “over there,” she waved her hands dismissively in the general direction of all the other losers sitting in rows of old school desks — the kind where the chair and the desk are attached. They were all fully engrossed in one task: filling out their unemployment insurance applications. I joined them.

Of course we weren’t losers, but it felt like we were. We were grown adults. We represented many races: white, black, Latino, and Asian. We represented a small fraction of the sea of people who were out of work at the height of the economic crisis. If you had come to us only weeks before we were school teachers and firemen, opera singers, Wall Street brokers, and justice advocates (like me). But now we were all numbers, experiencing the same humiliating moment together.

But, how much more humiliating it would have been to be thrown out of my apartment? How much more dehumanizing would it have been to become homeless or go without food? I was willing to endure this momentary discomfort because unemployment insurance would help stave off the greater humiliation and dehumanization of homelessness. My only comfort was I was not alone.

As I sat filling out my paperwork, I reflected on the times. It was fall 2009, the height of the economic downturn. My start-up nonprofit had been poised to seek grants from several new grantors, but all the grant money had dried up with the recession. Then I was without a salary. My only option was to collect unemployment insurance.

September 2009, the month I received confirmation that I would receive the benefit, 15 million Americans were unemployed. The unemployment rate had more than doubled from 2007 to 2009 to 9.8 percent. That month alone, the economy shed 263,000 jobs. Each of us sitting there was a living, breathing part of that statistic. Mine was one of those shed jobs.

With a key procedural vote of 60-37, the Senate cleared a three-month extension of unemployment benefits for a full vote today. President Barack Obama immediately hailed the move as the right thing to do because it upholds our values and is the best economic policy. But the most poignant moment in his White House address came when he highlighted the humanity of the people affected by the measure.

The president was introduced by Katherine Hackett, a woman who counts among the long-term unemployed. Katherine explained how she uses her small benefit each month to keep the house temperature to 58 degrees. She has lost weight because food is too expensive. And Hackett has never stopped sending resumes to prospective employers. She just can’t find work in this economy.

Referring to Hackett and the 1.3 million people who will be directly affected by the policy, the president said, “These are not statistics. These are your friends, your neighbors, your family members. It could be any one of us.”

Some pundits claim that extension of jobless benefits doesn’t work and doesn’t help the unemployed to find a job. The president took aim at that claim, in particular, saying unemployment benefits often represent a vital economic lifeline — the only source of income while the unemployed look for work. Weekly unemployment benefits keep people in their homes, keep the heat on, and keep food on the table.

“I challenge any lawmaker to live without an income,” the president said.

Today’s Senate vote brings hope to 1.3 million people who dare to hope every day. They dare to hope that the next resume, the next interview, the next encounter with an employer could change their life forever. It is right and good that we stand with the least — ones who have fallen on hard times — in their time of need.

They called my number. I walked my completed application to the job counselor who was charged with managing my application. She reviewed my resume and CV and she gave me hope. She said she was in this with me. I could call anytime for job search advice and could also take classes on how to conduct an effect job search.

Today, President Obama said the Congress should put the extension of unemployment benefits to a vote right away. And he promised to “sign it right away.”

“More than a million Americans will feel a little hope … and hope is contagious.”

Amen.

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners.

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