On 'War of Poverty' anniversary, jobless Philly contingent heads to D.C.

Posted: January 09, 2014

LITTLE MORE than a week after the government abruptly ended her extended unemployment benefits, Tracy Mulvehill of Tacony checked, and she was down to just $6.

She decided it would best be invested in a couple of gallons of gas. That way, she explained, she'd know that she'd make it to a doctor's appointment and her regular meeting with a job counselor at Pennsylvania CareerLink.

"It's crazy," said Mulvehill, 50, a single mother who'd lost both a full-time position as an officer manager and a part-time job by the summer of 2012 and who had been mostly supporting herself with just more than $1,300 a month in unemployment benefits while looking for a new job. "You don't know what will happen."

Mulvehill is hardly alone. She is one of an estimated 11,910 people here in Philadelphia, 86,900 in Pennsylvania and more than 1.3 million across the United States who stopped getting unemployment checks after Dec. 28. That's after Congress decided, in a year-end budget deal, to end emergency long-term aid - even as experts say that the situation for the long-term jobless is little better than when the Great Recession first hit in 2008. The aid cutoffs will more than double during 2014 unless Congress reverses course and restores the money.

This morning - which not so coincidentally is the 50th anniversary of then-President Lyndon Johnson's famous speech declaring a "War on Poverty"- Mulvehill and dozens of others from Philadelphia will board buses to rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington for legislation that would restore the emergency program that most recently allowed the jobless in Pennsylvania to collect benefits for 63 weeks instead of the usual 26.

Lawmakers who supported ending the emergency aid argued that the worst of the jobs crunch is over, with slow and steady improvement in the economy and the national unemployment rate easing gradually to 7 percent. But many experts say there is still a crisis in America for those like Mulvehill who've been without jobs for six months or longer.

Despite the recent gains, the rate of such chronic unemployment remains at 2.6 percent of the workforce, above the normal-times average of 1 percent. Many of those who've been without work say that the longer the gap in their resumes, the less likely that employers will even call back or bring them in for interviews.

"The long-term unemployed are not lazy or lacking in motivation," President Obama said yesterday at the White House. "They are coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations." The president was touting the bill to restore extended benefits that had won a surprise victory in the Senate when a GOP filibuster effort failed, all but guaranteeing its passage in that body.

But the prospects are much dimmer in the House, where conservative lawmakers are more likely to agree with radio's Rush Limbaugh, who yesterday blasted unemployment benefits as "paying people not to work."

Such sentiments infuriate full-time job hunters like a 50-something ex-pharmaceutical industry worker in West Philadelphia named Regina, who did not want her full name used.

"I'm on my computer every day, sending out applications, trying to do everything I can to secure a job," she said. Regina, who lost her job as a drug-safety assistant with Pfizer in suburban Collegeville in 2012, said extended benefits have "been a lifeline for me" as she's looked beyond Big Pharma for any type of work.

Although the jobs crunch has been particularly hard on laid-off workers older than 50 - especially those without college diplomas - experts said there's now no stereotypical profile for the long-term jobless.

Malik Culbreth, who's just 29, learned that the hard way last winter when he returned to West Philadelphia after his discharge from the Marines with the rank of lance corporal, including a stint in Afghanistan in artillery repair. He's been unable to find any meaningful work, and so he'd been paying his bills with his roughly $1,400 a month in jobless benefits that ended abruptly last month.

"It's rough," Culbreth said. "I've been to combat, I've been to war and I know what stress can do to somebody. That's what [joblessness] felt like." But as a returning veteran, Culbreth, an Overbrook High grad, eventually turned to another option - his military education benefits. He started classes this week at Community College of Philadelphia.

John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, who's leading today's local contingent to D.C. after successfully fighting back other efforts to end extended unemployment benefits in recent years, said the cuts aren't just pushing the jobless into poverty, they're hurting the grocers or gas stations where they've been doing business.

"All these people are immediately taking their money and spending it," Dodds said. "None of that money is going into trust funds or the stock market. It's going into buying shoes, or buying groceries."

Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, said the ongoing fallout of the jobs crisis - with still more than 2 million fewer people working than were on payrolls in 2008 - suggests that government would be wise to invest in credits for private employers who hire the long-term jobless. Said Smeeding: "The longer you've been out, the more your skills have atrophied, and you're less attractive to employers. "

What's more, the 50th anniversary of the "War on Poverty" is coinciding with arguably the worst time to be poor in America in recent memory.

Those who'd been collecting unemployment checks had already taken a roughly 10 percent hit in mid-2013 because of the federal cut known as "the sequester." Beneficiaries of the federal nutrition program known as SNAP, or food stamps, saw varying cuts in aid this fall, and Congress is weighing steeper reductions in 2014 to SNAP and a companion program tied to energy assistance known as "Heat and Eat."

All of which makes the faith of daily job seekers like West Philly's Regina even more remarkable.

"Life is difficult," she said yesterday. "But I'm looking above my circumstances.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: ph.ly/Attytood.com

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