Photo by Yuri Gripas, Reuters

Occupy DC movement protesters rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 8, following a day of disrupting and closing down Washington streets.   

Marchers protest in DC for jobs and benefits

Friday, December 9th, 2011 

Julia Lee hobbled on a cane in a crowd of marchers toward the Longworth House Office Building. She last held a full-time job five years ago. Lee is now receiving disability payments, injured in an accident and on a cane due to a rejected knee replacement two years ago. The grandmother of seven from Philadelphia traveled to Washington because, to her, something’s not right.

“All Americans have a right to a job and have a right to take care of their families, because that’s what this country is built on,” Lee said.

Young and old in mud-caked shoes marched toward the Capitol Thursday calling for jobs and for fairness in the economic system. The marchers have convened in Washington from across the country, camping on the Mall by day and sleeping in local churches by night. They are part of an effort backed by Our DC, a grassroots advocacy group focused on good jobs for District residents, which organized the encampment in collaboration with a coalition of union members and the unemployed. Thursday’s procession followed several days of action, including a march on K Street and sit-ins at Congressional offices. 

The mobilization is tied to Congress’s current focus on proposed extensions of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. If the payroll tax cut is allowed to expire at the end of this month, an American family making $50,000 a year stands to pay an additional $1,000 in taxes next year, according to the White House. And if the unemployment extensions end, 1.8 million people will lose benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project (pdf). The president has advocated vehemently for the two measures, arguing that both provided needed stimulus for the slowly recovering economy. House Speaker John Boehner has said the benefits should not be extended without cuts in other areas. Progress on the measures has been glacial. 

The employment market is not without its bright spots. Markets rallied last week when the unemployment rate dropped below 9 percent, its lowest point in two-and-a-half years. But the majority of that drop came from people giving up the job search. There are still 16 million Americans either without a job or looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One of those who have given up looking is John Butler of Washington. The DC Metro area has been a standout during the recession, with an unemployment rate below the national average, but disparities abound. Within the city of Washington, 11 percent are unemployed. In the city’s poorest section, Ward 8, the rate is more than 26 percent, according to the DC Department of Employment Services (pdf). It has been more than 20 percent since December 2008. 

Butler has been unemployed for several years, and now works with Our DC. He helped to coordinate the 4-day encampment on the National Mall, called Take Back the Capitol

“The need is real,” Butler said. “We are hurting.” 

“We’re here to have them see us, hear us and feel us. Feel our pain,” he said.

Ashley Howard knows about economic pain. The DC resident has been unemployed for a year, after being laid off from an administrative job at the Environmental Protection Agency. Her unemployment benefits are set to expire next month. She has worked sparingly since then and participated in training programs, but she says it’s not enough. The 23-year-old mother of two lived in a shelter until recently moving in with a family member. 

“When I get paid from unemployment, it’s like the money is gone as soon as it gets there,” Howard said.

Howard applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but was denied because she was told she makes too much on unemployment. She’s worried she may have nothing to give her kids for Christmas. She wished those in Congress could imagine what it's like to be in her shoes.

“Please stop being a coward,” said Howard, speaking to Congress. “You have the right and the position to do what you need to do to save other people.”

Barry Specter, a former teacher, says Congress should focus job creation, not deficit reduction. At the state and federal level, quests to balance budgets have dragged down employment rolls. The public sector lost 20,000 jobs last month, while the private sector saw job growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Specter knows from experience the toll budget cuts can take. The 60-year-old from Pittsburgh was furloughed in July with 4,000 other teachers in Pennsylvania, in order to close a $4 billion shortfall. 

“Being unemployed is a real blow, especially at my age. There aren’t a whole lot of places even willing to consider me,” Specter said.

Specter spent the bulk of his career in the private sector before moving into education 14 years ago.  He fears another year without income will have a detrimental impact on calculating his pension. 

While he expressed sympathy for his colleagues in education, he’s concerned about the impact of cuts on students. Nearly $1 billion in state education cuts caused Specter’s Steel Valley school district to lay off one-third of its workforce. 

“It’s even worse for the students because they’ll never get that year back,” says Specter.

Back at the Longworth Office Building, the protestor from Philadelphia had to lean on a stone banister as her fellow demonstrators sat down in protest. Lee still chanted along in solidarity.

“I’m fighting for my grandchildren’s future,” she said. 


What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.