Witness Wednesdays Brings The Voices Of The Unemployed To Washington

Terrance Heath

More than 3 million hardworking Americans have lost their emergency unemployment benefits, since House Republicans allowed the program to expire. Witness Wednesdays is bringing some of those voices to Washington. Will the GOP listen?

Activists and members of Congress gathered outside the Capitol this afternoon for the first Witness Wednesday event. For seven weeks this summer, the Center for Effective Government, the Coalition on Human Needs, and the National  Women’s Law Center, will bring members of Congress and faith, labor, civil rights, and nonprofit leaders together every Wednesday to share the personal stories of Americans hard-hit by the unemployment crisis and the loss of emergency unemployment benefits.

The inaugural event was broadcast online, and is available on YouTube.

Despite Republican rhetoric, these are not the stories of “lazy” drunks and drug addicts who would rather rest in the “hammock” of unemployment benefits. Nor are they the stories of lazy “inner city” men, whose children have no work ethic because they “have nobody around them who works”. These are the stories of Americans who have worked hard all their lives, and simply need help as they try to get back on their feet.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shared the story of John, a former nuclear submarine operator  from Arlington Heights, Illinois, who lost his full-time job three years ago and struggled to finish law school after his unemployment benefits expired in December.

Right now, it’s a race against the clock,  getting employment before our savings run out. Looking for a new job is hindered by unemployment running out. … If savings run out before I can find employment in the law community, I will have to resort to taking any position to make ends meet, and that means I may never get to use my law degree that I invested so much time toward. Restoring UI would help me find a new and higher paying job.

Schakowsky added, “Some of our colleagues on the Republican side call things like unemployment insurance some kind of hammock for lazy people. This is somebody who wants to work and improve his skills, and be a contributor to our country as well as his family. Shame on them.”

Reverend Stacy Martin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, reminded us that, “This isn’t just an economic issue, and it’s not simply a moral issue. It’s a spiritual issue.”

She shared the story of a former breast cancer coordinator from Laurel Springs, New Jersey, whose husband also lost his job:

For the record, my husband and I have never been unemployed in 42 years of marriage. We realize that there are many people who are in a much worse position than us. Mostly I think about the children and what they suffer. I remember as a child, watching my parents struggle, and the day my father left, and we had to go on welfare. My mother hated every minute of what she perceived to be charity, and I vowed never to go that route. Please, if for no other reason, help the children who did not sign up for this.

It was a sad statement on this Congress that just yards from where one group gathered to call for something as basic as extending unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed, another group of congressional Democrats and advocates gathered under the #SaveSchoolLunch banner to fight Republican efforts to weaken nutritional standards for school meals. The only healthy meals children from struggling families can count on getting are at school. Republicans want to cut funding and lower standards for those meals, for the benefit of their friends in Big Agriculture.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) shared the story of Melanie, a single mother from Minnesota. Melanie was going to nursing school in an effort to better herself and improve her chances of finding a better job. After her unemployment benefits expired, Melanie had to withdraw from classes, due to fear of losing her home. “I need to feed my kids and finish school, while continuing to look for work with my new degree,” Melanie wrote. “Poverty does not discriminate, nor does it reflect my ability or willingness to work hard.”

Ed James, representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, shared the story of an unemployed Head Start worker from Philadelphia who wrote, “It hurts that I have lived my life  helping others in need, but when I need help Congress turns its back on me.”

Congress isn’t blocking the extension of long-term unemployment benefits; Republicans are. In April, the Senate overcame Republican filibuster efforts, and voted to extend unemployment benefits, but that bill expired because House Speaker John Boehner refuses to allow a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who introduced the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 2014 (HR 4415), said that the House roll-call votes held this afternoon were only allowed two minutes each. It would not trouble Congress to take two minutes to vote on the bill, Rep. Kildee said, “but Republicans don’t have three minutes” to extend unemployment benefits to three million Americans who are hurting and hanging on to hope.

Maybe that’s because, as Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said, “Unemployed people have become invisible to House leadership.”

Sister Marge Clark from the National Catholic Social Justice lobby offered an immediate solution. She invited those gathered to join her organization in walking through the halls of Congress this afternoon, delivering the stories of more than 3 million Americans who have lost the unemployment benefits, and reading them aloud as they walked.

If the unemployed remain invisible to House Republicans after the next seven weeks, it’s because the GOP refuses to see them.

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