The first time I lost my job, the owner of the small design agency where I worked sat in a chair across from me in his spandex shorts and spiked bicycle shoes. He proceeded to lay off my soon-to-be husband Dylan and me, and then click-clacked his way back to his desk. Six years later, that image of him is the only thing I can laugh at about that day.
As our boss walked away, panic shot through my body. It was 2009. The recession had now smacked us right in the face.
When Dylan and I tried to get the two months of back pay that we were owed, the North Carolina Department of Labor flatly told us there was no recourse, and suggested we apply for unemployment benefits (UI). The process was daunting. It required a lengthy registration and application, a long lead time before we’d receive any benefits, and a “weekly certification” to prove we were seeking new employment. Eventually, our first unemployment checks came in. Mine totaled around $150 per week, Dylan’s around $85 per week.
Our daily job searches and revised resumes were fruitless. We delayed paying bills, cashed in coin jars, and sold off the few luxury items we had, like film cameras and well-played, treasured records. But it wasn’t enough to keep us in our apartment.
We made the difficult decision to move into the basement of my future mother-in-law’s home in New Hampshire. Our unemployment benefits, though meager, were key to getting us a moving truck so we could have a roof to live under and hold onto the things we hadn’t sold.
Fourteen months later, I was laid off again—right after I had returned from our honeymoon. Dylan, too, had lost his job in New Hampshire shortly before we were married. Instead of newlywed bliss, we faced stress and fatigue as we crunched numbers to make ends meet.
Luckily, the process for claiming unemployment was much easier and faster in New Hampshire. And since our recent jobs had paid us slightly higher wages, and New Hampshire policies were far more generous, our checks came in at $450 between the two of us—almost double what we received in North Carolina.
But the bills continued to pile up on the kitchen counter. There were stacks of legal pads on the nightstand. We postdated and subtracted to survive—a process made more difficult on an empty stomach, which was too often the case for us. We eventually applied for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. After we got through its long application process the program gave us a second huge sigh of relief. We could eat. Therefore we could think. Crunch some more numbers.
Six years later, my husband and I still live paycheck to paycheck. But the specter of poverty sits right on my shoulder. It’s there. Always.
Because I have faced the reality of living on a shoestring, I know how critical programs like unemployment insurance and SNAP are. Without them, the story of our small family would be radically different. We would not have gone on to start our own business, begun to build up our savings (albeit slowly), or, with trepidation, started to dream again.
But public assistance has become even harder to secure in states like North Carolina. Since we left, the state legislature has passed harmful cuts to the UI program. Now residents are eligible for just 13 weeks of UI—half the duration permitted in most other states. In our case, this harsh time limit wouldn’t have given us any chance of finding suitable jobs and applying for them, let alone completing the process of interviewing and securing a start date. In contrast, the state of New Hampshire offers modest insurance benefits that gave us the boost we needed to get back on our feet.
I know too many people who work hard and get knocked down. It’s time for an unemployment insurance system that lifts people back up—no matter where they live.