Honestly, I was a terrible witness. My friend and I once saw a kid steal drinks from a gas station, and the attendant asked us to describe what happened to police. Here’s what I had: Baseball cap, jersey, jeans, driving a car. My friend? She knew the team names, the guy’s height, the items he took, and the kind of motorcycle – not car – he’d been driving. Ouch.
Witnessing an event is not the same as serving as a witness – trust me. Being a witness means taking part in something. It means remembering crucial details, withstanding questions or attacks from the other side, and knowing that a great deal might be riding on how you tell your story. We put a lot of stock into first-hand accounts, and as a witness, you’re bringing to life events that may have happened far away or right here at home. It’s not an easy job.
This week, the first in a series of Witness Wednesdays will take place just outside the Capitol, where members of Congress and advocates from the faith, labor, civil rights, and nonprofit communities will join together to listen to the voices of long-term unemployed workers. Each Wednesday for six weeks, we will share stories submitted by jobless workers who have been searching for work for more than six months. No doubt, we’ll learn about individuals’ struggles to find new work, but we’ll also hear about how the expiration of federal unemployment insurance (UI) benefits has left many families unable to make the rent or pay their medical bills. Organized by the Center for Effective Government, today’s Witness Wednesday kick-off event can be viewed by livestream from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. ET.
UI benefits, which Congress failed to extend after the program expired last December, had been used by long-term unemployed workers whose state benefits had run out. Not only did the benefits prevent people from falling into poverty as they searched for work (UI kept 1.7 million people from falling into poverty in 2012), but they also helped spur job growth and stimulate the economy. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill to extend the benefits in early April, but the House failed to act, prioritizing corporate subsidies over jobless workers. As of this week, more than 3 million workers have had their benefits cut off since December, and another 72,000 lose benefits each week.
We learned from the jobs data released last Friday that there has been some positive news about job growth in recent months. But sadly, our newly updated UI fact sheet shows that the message on long-term unemployment remains the same: The number of workers still searching for employment after 26 weeks remains at historically high levels. Currently, more than one in three jobless workers falls into the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
Fortunately for me, Witness Wednesdays don’t require participants to recall facts or recount something that happened long ago. But they do require us to stand together and ensure that the struggles of unemployed workers and their families – struggles that are happening right now around the country – aren’t swept under the rug. The important specifics – the lost jobs, growing debt, forgotten retirements – are provided in heartbreaking detail from people who know all too well how cutting off UI benefits affects families.
Making the trek to D.C. to share their stories isn’t an option for most unemployed workers, but these voices need to be heard. The least I can do is be there to bear witness.