Valerie Toton, who has been unemployed since July, takes exception with the argument. The Hillside resident said elected officials in Washington are only focused on numbers and that “numbers are not representing things accurately.” She added that unemployment insurance is “not a handout” and she “paid into this my whole life.”
Toton had worked 29 years for the same company when she was laid off in July. She collected unemployment for six months, bringing in $463 a week, and has been looking for work since losing her job. Toton is the mother of a 5-year-old boy and takes care of her 91-year-old grandmother. Her husband has been out of work since 2009.
“I have never been unemployed,” she said Tuesday night. “At 15, I had three jobs.”
The family scaled back when her husband lost his job, which happened shortly after their son was born, and they cut back further when she lost her job. They have one car, which they cannot repair, have had to cut back on food, and cannot enroll their son in school aftercare.
She said she is “past the point” of going to a food pantry.
“If not for my high school best friend showing up with carload of food on Saturday, my son would have gone to school today with nothing,” she said. “I don’t need to eat. But I can’t have my child hungry.”
Ann Vardeman, an organizer with the liberal advocacy group Citizen Action, said last week that allowing the benefit extension to expire was “kicking people down a hole when they are down.”
“These people have been out there looking for work,” she said. “This has put some money in pockets and they won’t have that money anymore. Once those unemployment benefits are cut, that is how people fall out of the work force and how people slide into poverty.”
Vardeman acknowledged that benefits have been in place longer than in the past, but she said the most recent recession has been a stubborn one, slowing the recovery and leaving the unemployment rate comparatively high. The national unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in December, still more than a percentage point and a half higher than in 2008 when the recession began. And, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.9 million of the 10.4 million unemployed nationally have been without work for 27 weeks or longer. The New Jersey unemployment rate is 7.8 percent.
“The program has gone on for longer than it has historically in other recessions, but that is because this recession has taken longer to recover,” she said.
Diane Riley, advocacy director for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, said she is concerned that the loss of unemployment aid will force people to rely on already stressed social service agencies, like the state’s network of private pantries and soup kitchens. Many already are turning to pantries to put food on the table – about 10 percent of the 3,000 people they screened for federal nutrition programs over the last three years were receiving unemployment benefits.
“While we can’t draw direct lines right now, we are concerned,” she said. “Every time somebody’s income gets cut, we see people struggling more.”
She said she is particularly concerned about the long-term unemployed, who often “have much less of a chance to get back on their feet” and may have to turn to pantries for longer periods.
“What is going to happen with their house, their rent?” she said. “I am concerned with what they are using that money for. That is a lot of money to lose. It is more than just food money they are losing.”
Shawn Sheekey, director of the Camden County Board of Social Services, said it is difficult to gauge how the loss of unemployment benefits will affect local service providers, because many have been seeing a steady increase in clients since the recession hit in 2008. In Camden County, he said, 4,700 people were expected to have benefits cut off in December and it is “not a far stretch to imagine that they are going to show up at our door.”
“They have lost all income and the one thing that they had in assisting them in keeping up with their bills,” he said.
That’s the prospect that Vanco is facing.
“I’m not broke, but if I didn’t have the money I have in bank I wouldn’t be able to survive,” she said. “How can a person look for work, if you can’t put gas in the tank to go on an interview, or pay the cell phone to hear about the interview.”