WASHINGTON — In December, Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire, cutting off aid to more than 1 million people who had been out of work for 27 weeks or longer.
Since then, that number has tripled to 3 million Americans who would qualify for the jobless benefits, creating an economically marginalized and increasingly desperate subset of people struggling to make ends meet as the economy slowly recovers.
Six months of political and legislative maneuvering by advocates to get the benefits extended have been unsuccessful. So a new grass-roots effort is taking shape to plead the case. Beginning this week, several groups will hold events on Capitol Hill each Wednesday this summer, in which members of Congress as well as union and faith leaders will urge lawmakers, particularly House Republicans, to extend the benefits.
A deal brokered in the Senate earlier this year to do so has languished in the House, where the GOP leadership declined to bring it to a vote. President Barack Obama, who has called for the passage of minimum wage and paycheck fairness bills — both of which failed in the Senate — has been less active in pushing for the renewal of federal unemployment benefits. He has not called on House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to urge a vote on the issue.
Those who have lost their benefits have vowed to keep up the pressure on lawmakers. Many have turned to online communities for support and advice. Half a dozen Facebook pages and groups for the long-term unemployed have thousands of members. Articles about the stalled efforts to renew emergency jobless benefits often amass hundreds of comments, serving as message boards and chat rooms.
One group, Emergency Unemployment Benefits Extension Now, has a Facebook page with 3,700 members. Asked to share their stories with The Washington Post, more than 200 members responded in less than in 24 hours.
A 54-year-old security consultant from New York said he is living on $11 a day, having been out of work since 2013. A mother of four in Upstate New York noted that, with no money to pay for Internet service, her 15-year-old spends evenings sitting in a McDonald’s — which has free WiFi — to complete homework assignments.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the “long-term unemployed” as those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. According to the latest statistics from the bureau, more than 3.4 million Americans were considered long-term jobless as of May, out of a total of 9.8 million unemployed.
“My husband and I wanted to live the American dream,” said Sandy LoBianco Ford, 53, who after years working as a bartender and waitress went back to school at age 42.
She was ecstatic when she quickly found a “dream job” right out of school, working in computer-aided drafting and design. She and her husband began building the life they had envisioned: buying a house and new cars. But in June 2013, her company downsized, and LoBianco Ford was laid off.
Under the federal unemployment system, someone who loses a job typically receives jobless benefits from the state for 26 weeks. But in 2008, Congress voted to provide additional aid that made checks available for as many as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states. Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. Then, at the end of December, Congress let federal aid lapse altogether.
“Our government has never terminated unemployment benefits when a full 35 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or more,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., who is leading the unemployment extension push in the House, wrote in an op-ed published by Roll Call this week. “It’s cruel.”
Even with monthly job reports signaling an improving economy, millions remain without work. And, the longer they stay jobless, economists say, the harder it becomes for them to find work.
In the year since she last worked, LoBianco Ford has depleted her meager retirement fund. Soon, she said, she and her husband will have to sell at least one, maybe both, of their vehicles. Their credit is a shambles, and their two dogs go w-ithout flea medication and trips to the vet.
“I pray every night that if we can just hold on a little longer, the bill will pass and people will be able to start digging out of this mess,” LoBianco Ford said. “We just need a little help to get us going in the right direction.”
In March, after the Senate had voted on three times — and not passed — an extension to unemployment benefits, Boehner said he would not consider legislation that does not include job-creation measures.
But then several Republicans joined with Democrats to pass a Senate bill that would renew the expired benefits. Some observers hoped that the bipartisan nature of the measure — which had the support of several prominent Republicans, including Sens. Rob Portman, Ohio, and Mark Kirk, Ill., — would spur movement in the House.
The deal, brokered by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., fueled speculation that Republican House leaders might relent on their insistence that any bill to extend the benefits must also include job creation measures. But no real political pressure on the House GOP ever materialized.
Many of the jobless have grown increasingly frustrated, and the animosity and disdain for Boehner and the House Republicans have mounted.
In April, Kimberly Rowe of Tennessee, a regular contributor to one of the Facebook groups, wrote that her husband, who had been out of work for more than a year, had killed himself. His depression, she wrote, stemmed from feelings of hopelessness because he had been unable to find a job and unable to provide for the family since December, when the unemployment checks stopped.
“I blame this on our government,” Rowe wrote. “They don’t realize what this is doing to millions of people who are suffering.”
Advocates say they will redouble efforts this summer to extend the benefits. The Wednesday “storytelling” events on the Hill will feature members of Congress — organizers have invited Democrats and Republicans — as well as faith and union leaders reading personal stories and anecdotes from the long-term unemployed. The first in this series, on Wednesday, will include Levin, several other Democratic lawmakers and officials from the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“Anytime we’re having these high levels of unemployment we’ve always had bipartisan passage of unemployment extension,” said Katherine McFate, president and chief executive of the Center for Effective Government. “If we can let the American public understand what is going on here, they can potentially put pressure on the elected officials.”
And, in what advocates for the jobless are taking as a glimmer of hope, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters last week that he hopes Heller will soon be able to craft a new deal to renew the expired benefits.
“He has talked about this at least once a week. What he’s doing is scrambling to get a few more Republicans,” Reid said. “Of course, anytime that Senator Heller makes a little progress on this, we’ll bring it back because people are just as desperate today as they were two months ago.”