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Life Without Jobless Benefits: Watching, Searching And Praying

Josie Maisano poses with her congressman, Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan. Levin says if Congress can't respond to people like Maisano, "we've failed."
Tamara Keith
Josie Maisano poses with her congressman, Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan. Levin says if Congress can't respond to people like Maisano, "we've failed."

There's a small frame hanging on the wall near the computer Josie Maisano uses to search for work. Inside there's a picture of her at this year's State of the Union address and a blue ribbon that Democrats wore that night to highlight the plight of people like Maisano, whose unemployment benefits stopped at the end of December.

"Oh, my God. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Maisano. "Listening to President Obama, it was just very, very heartwarming."

That night, as Maisano looked down from the gallery, Obama called for Congress to renew the federal benefits program for the long-term uninsured.

"This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people," Obama said to loud cheers.

But two months later, even more people have lost benefits. The Senate is expected to vote early next week on a bipartisan bill that would restore the program, but its fate in the Republican-controlled House is far from certain. And that leaves more than 2 million people in limbo.

"I thought that something would have happened a lot sooner," says Maisano.

Every day Maisano, 60, goes to her computer and applies for jobs. She lives in St. Clair Shores, Mich., and worked as a secretary in the auto industry from the time she graduated high school until 2008.

Since then, she's been on and off unemployment and even went through a federal retraining program, only to discover she didn't have enough experience to land a job in the field she studied. Maisano says since her $179 weekly unemployment checks stopped coming, she and her husband have fallen behind on their mortgage. She's signed up for food stamps.

"I've almost rubbed my crucifix, rubbed the gold right off of it," says Maisano, touching a gold pendant she wears around her neck. "All I do is pray that something good will come along, and it's just not happening."

A Fight Over Policy

Her congressman is Sander Levin, D-Mich., an outspoken advocate for renewing the federal unemployment benefits program.

"I'm not saying everybody's the same, but there really are 2 million Josies," says Levin.

To Levin and most Democrats, extending the benefits is the right thing to do.

"If we can't respond to people who have worked in many cases all their lives and who are desperately looking for work, I just feel that personally we've failed," says Levin.

But many Republicans question the wisdom of keeping the program going. This fight goes beyond politics: There's a fundamental policy disagreement.

"Extending this program multiple times, which has been 12 times, it's twice the amount of spending on all the previous programs, so clearly just spending on this program doesn't move the needle," says Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

He argues it has failed people like Maisano who still haven't found sustainable employment.

"Obviously we've sent her checks. She's on her second round of unemployment," say Camp. "That hasn't worked for her. We need actually policies that will create jobs."

But agreement on what those policies might be is even more elusive.

'Part Of The Human Race Again'

Maisano searches all the time for news about whether Congress might bring back her benefits. But what she really wants is to get a paycheck again.

"I need a job," she says, the emotion clear in her voice. "I want a job. I want to be part of the human race again. This sitting home every day, it's driving me mad."

Maisano is smart, passionate, an excellent writer — and she can start immediately.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.