Meet Mark. He’s a 58 year old, college-educated veteran who lives in Oregon.

He was laid off last September and has been unable to find work since. Mark’s state unemployment benefits ran out in May. Since funding for the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was cut last December, Mark and more than three million other Americans, including nearly 300,000 veterans, have been denied access to a second six months of support — a vital financial lifeline in this tough economy. Mark is way behind in his rent, is selling everything of value he owns, and fears he will be homeless soon.


Ed Yordon/flickr

“We spend trillions bailing out banks, and provide Wall Street bonuses for those that created this challenging economy, but for a highly skilled worker, a veteran with a family, this country has nothing,” writes Mark. “What is this country about anymore? Our military service personnel risk their lives to save and protect the freedoms of our country and this land, but when we need help there isn’t enough?”

My organization, the Center for Effective Government, is collecting stories from people like Mark reporting how the loss of emergency unemployment benefits is wrecking their lives. Unemployment benefits only provide about $300 a week, barely enough for the rent or mortgage in many places, but it keeps the utilities on, pays for a phone, gas money, and an internet connection — so the job search can continue. Employers won’t hire someone without an address and phone number.

The stories follow a common trajectory. First, families drain their savings. Then, their retirement accounts to keep paying rent or the mortgage. That’s followed by resorting to credit card debt to buy food, keep the phone and utilities on, and pay for gas money. As families become more desperate, they start selling their possessions and move in with friends and relatives, if they have that option.

Some families end up sleeping in tents and cars, leaving parents to worry that the authorities will take away their children until they’re back on their feet.

Almost all our stories end with some version of Mark’s question, especially the stories from veterans: What is this country about anymore? They feel betrayed by elected officials who put partisan politics above their needs, betrayed by the nation that ignores their plight.

In April, the Senate passed a retroactive extension of emergency unemployment assistance. House leaders refused to allow a vote on the bill, so it expired.

A more modest proposal has emerged: It would provide assistance to those who apply for emergency aid in the future. It would provide no retroactive relief to the millions of workers who have exhausted their resources as they continue to search for work. But those jobless Americans need retroactive benefits to catch up on the rent and pay off their credit card debt.

It looks like this bipartisan new bill co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Kildee (D-MI) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) could garner a House majority. That would mark a step forward.

But this “half a loaf” won’t be enough to stabilize the lives of the millions of Americans who worked hard, played by the rules, took care of their families, and have been felled by a poor economy.

This Independence Day, let’s all ask ourselves: “What is this country about anymore?” What country allows almost 300,000 unemployed veterans and their families (and another 2.9 million Americans) to sink into poverty?

The Declaration of Independence begins by asserting our right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For the long-term unemployed, the ending may be more relevant: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The pledge to support and protect each other captures the essence of patriotism. This Independence Day, we need to open our hearts to our neighbors and honor our common humanity by extending a hand to our fellow Americans as they struggle to navigate our tough economy.

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Katherine McFate

Katherine McFate is the President and CEO of the Center for Effective Government, a nonprofit public interest
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