It's Not Just Poor People Getting Hosed When Congress Lets Unemployment Insurance Expire

Not Just Poor People Get Hosed When Congress Lets Unemployment Insurance Expire
President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)
President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

NEW YORK -- David Torian is an Ivy League-educated lawyer and a onetime chief of staff to then-Rep. Michael McNulty (D-N.Y.). He has 23 years of experience in congressional and government relations, witnessed and practiced politics at the highest level, and has been well compensated along the way.

On Dec. 28, he will also be among the 1.3 million Americans who will lose their long-term federal unemployment insurance benefits.

Unemployment is not just a blue collar problem. As Torian's experience shows, it can affect even Beltway power players. And it comes without much, if any, warning. When the consulting firm that Torian worked for after his time on the Hill folded, there were few options available. He took time off to help his sister tend to their ailing mother, who died at the end of 2012. The Washington resident then went looking for work. While he found that his government affairs experience was a draw, his age, 49, was not.

"I get interviews but lose out in the end because prospective employers tell me my experience makes me 'over-qualified' and they do not feel I would stay long in the position if it was offered," Torian told The Huffington Post.

For over a year now, he has been receiving unemployment benefits as he tries to find a job. The benefits, roughly $430 a week, were set to last another few months. But he has been informed that his last check came this past Wednesday.

"The whole experience of not working and looking for work has been extremely stressful on me. It’s a pride issue. It is an embarrassment issue, too. A lot of my casual friends don’t know I’m not working. I’m too embarrassed to tell them that I’m out of work and on unemployment insurance," he said. He had hesitated to talk on the record because of that.

When lawmakers skipped town for Christmas break this year, they left unresolved what to do about federal unemployment insurance. The benefits, available to jobless workers who had used up six months of state-funded compensation, had been running since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Early in 2012, Congress began scaling back the duration of federal benefits as the economy improved. There was uncertainty as to what would happen at the end of this year with even better economic conditions. Now, with the program set to lapse, recipients such as Torian are left gaming out a petrifying next few months.

Already, he said, he's moved to a cheaper home, maxed out credit cards, and gone through his savings and 401(k) accounts. He's found some work on the side through a friend. But the income isn't enough. He figures that he can pay rent for three more months without the unemployment insurance. He's thought about looking for more blue collar work. But he has no background or skill set in those fields.

"I’m in and out of depression mode," he said. "I will stay in my apartment for days without leaving. It’s emotionally draining."

Unlike food stamps -- another safety net program that Congress likes to kick around -- Americans don't qualify for unemployment insurance by being poor. In fact, you can only qualify for unemployment benefits if you had a solid work history prior to being laid off. And you can only remain eligible by continuing to search for work.

Roughly 40 percent of Americans who've received long-term unemployment benefits since 2008 had previously earned between $30,000 and $75,000, according to an analysis of Census data by the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Earlier research by the Congressional Budget Office has shown that more than two-thirds of recipients had annual incomes more than twice the poverty level and that such households received 70 percent of all unemployment payments. In other words, unemployment insurance for the most part serves the middle class.

Yet up until recently, there was little apparent appetite to tackle the issue in Washington. Since early December, Democrats have waged an aggressive publicity campaign in favor of preserving the benefits, with daily statements from the White House and Democratic members of Congress. But even though he routinely threatens to spoil senators' weekends and holidays with urgent votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said the Senate won't vote on restoring the benefits until Jan. 6 at the earliest.

Advocates for the program aren't particularly bullish on the likelihood of Congress' restoring the benefits retroactively either. But Democrats have been buoyed by local press coverage of the issue. In an effort to amplify that coverage, several lawmakers have begun meeting directly with unemployment insurance recipients in addition to putting them on conference calls with national reporters. Bruce Hirshfield of Bethany, Conn., was one of those examples, highlighted by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) as representative of the wide universe of individuals set to take a hit.

Hirshfield has lived a largely ideal life. After 20-years in the insurance industry, he joined a Connecticut bank as a vice president, earned a six-figure salary and lived comfortably with his wife and children, one of whom he had sent to college. The job was relatively stable and professionally stimulating. At 54 years old, he was happy.

Then it fell apart. The bank went through one, two, three restructurings. The last one cost Hirshfield his job.

He began training for a new career, taking a 30-week course in project management at the University of New Haven in hopes of widening his allure to prospective employers. But the search for work has been impossibly tough. He has been unemployed now for 14 months. For just over a year, he has been receiving unemployment benefits.

“It’s tough,” Hirshfield said in an interview. “I’m one of four children. I’m the youngest. My dad died when I was 18 and a half. My mom turned to me and said, ‘You are now the man of the house.’ That burned inside me. That really shaped me for who I am as a person. And now, here I am as the classic provider guy and I’m not that anymore in a sense.”

Repeatedly during the interview, Hirshfield stressed that he doesn’t think of himself as a "sob story." His wife is working and he receives roughly $600 a week in benefits. He recognizes that others are in much worse straits. Yet the lapse of long-term unemployment benefits is forcing difficult choices. He has a daughter who is a junior in college and a step son who is in his senior year of high school. He has thought about selling his house, but isn't sure he would qualify for a mortgage or if it would be financially smart.

Hirshfield says he's more open now to blue collar work. But like Torian, he isn't sure if his skill set would be appealing to such an employer and he stubbornly (he admits) wants to hold on to the life he built.

"You grow into a certain station in life, and you want to maintain that," he said. He bristled at the notion that unemployment benefits had dulled his desire to find full-time work -- a criticism of the program made most recently by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

"My motivation is not about getting unemployment benefits. My motivation is to get back to where I was," Hirshfield said. "Rand Paul to me, I appreciate his perspective, he is a smart man, but I don’t necessarily agree with his viewpoints. I understand what he is saying, but he is dead wrong."

With no immediate employment opportunities, Hirshfield has stretched his dollars as far as he can. He stopped going out to dinner, began doing some of his own auto repairs, drained his savings, dipped into his pension and whittled down his stock portfolio. With the remaining $20,000 or so, he is taking risky bets in hopes of high returns.

The day before the Dec. 28 deadline for unemployment benefits to lapse, he decided to cash in three $25 bonds that he had received as a bar mitzvah gift. They stopped accruing interest in 2000. He estimates he can get $400 out of them.

"I had held on to them largely for nostalgic value," he said. "I never even thought about cashing them in. Never once gave it a second thought. Now I think, 'Wow, I could get some groceries out of this.'"

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