Jobless relieved life raft still afloat

Monday, December 20, 2010
In this Dec. 17, 2010 photo, Kimberly Smith holds up a medical assistant diploma in Lyndhurst, Ohio. Smith was laid off from her job as a department manager at a jeweler a year and a half ago. She went back to school and became a certified medical assistant and still cannot find a job. President Barack Obama extended unemployment benefits for Smith and millions of other Americans when he signed tax-cut legislation Friday. For unemployed people who spoke to The Associated Press across the country, the extension is a relief, but a shadow of the relief a new job would provide. "We, the middle class, are just trying to keep our heads above water," she says. "And you know what? We're drowning." (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND -- Kimberly Smith holds up the piece of paper that is the only thing keeping her from bankruptcy: an application for extended unemployment benefits. She's not happy that she needs it. And she's upset that it was nearly taken away.

"I do deserve it," the 49-year-old said. "I've done everything I could to try and get a job. I tried to get back into the retail industry. I made the effort to, at my age, go back to college."

President Barack Obama extended unemployment benefits for Smith and millions of other Americans when he signed tax-cut legislation Friday. It helps people who have been out of work more than 26 weeks but less than 99 weeks, though the benefits vary greatly from state to state.

They could be just about anybody. People with college degrees and people with no higher education. People who have resorted to living out of their cars. People who have cashed out their retirement savings. People who once held six-figure jobs and people like Smith, who was laid off from her job as a department manager at a jeweler's a year and a half ago.

What unites them is the bitterness in their voices as they talk about how badly they need unemployment benefits -- to clothe their children, to pay for heat, to save their homes from foreclosure.

"My options are to not pay my bills, have my house taken away, have creditors on me," said Smith, a mother of two in Lyndhurst, Ohio, who has been supporting her family on an unemployment check that amounts to $477 a week before taxes.

Relief and frustration

In Ohio and the 24 other states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent, the unemployed can receive benefits for up to 99 weeks. In other states, they get less than that -- in some cases as few as 60 weeks, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The new law restores, for 13 more months, the 99-week maximum. It also renews federal programs that extend benefits beyond the 26 weeks that states always provide. Those federal programs had expired Nov. 30.

For unemployed people across the country, the extension is a relief, but a shadow of the relief a new job would provide. They are frustrated not only with their struggles to find work, but with the accusations -- on TV, by protesters outside the office for food stamps -- that they're lazy, that they're not trying hard enough.

'We're drowning'

Right now, there is nothing Smith would like more than a job. Anything to get her out of her living room, where she spends her days trolling the Internet for jobs while the snow piles up outside.

Before her job with the jeweler, she spent two decades working for a fashion retailer that ended up leaving northeast Ohio. After her most recent layoff, she tried to change industries.

There are jobs in the medical industry, people told her. So she went back to school and became a certified medical assistant. Weeks blurred into months.

And still Smith cannot find a job.

"We, the middle class, are just trying to keep our heads above water," she said. "And you know what? We're drowning."

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