99 Weeks of Problems

Ninety-nine weeks is a long time. Ninety-nine weeks ago, it was early April 2009. President Barack Obama was wrapping up his first 100 days, and he saw "glimmers of hope across the economy." The official end of the Great Recession, in June 2009, was just around the corner.

Tell that to Wayne Drescher. Ninety-nine weeks ago, the 59-year-old was three months out of a job and collecting unemployment checks. Now, more than two years removed from his layoff -- "a Monday," he says, "the day my world turned upside down" -- he's joined the ranks of the so-called 99ers: people who have exhausted all 99 weeks of available unemployment assistance.

The government estimates that 1.4 million Americans are in the same boat as Drescher -- what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the "very long-term unemployed." The National Employment Law Project puts the number far higher, at 3.9 million. "As long as the economy continues to be in bad shape," says Claire McKenna, a policy analyst at NELP, "I can't imagine the number is going to go down." There are also almost 6 million people who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, some of whom are on their way to 99er status.

Yet despite their numbers -- and their potential as a swing voting bloc, given their political diversity and shared predicament -- the 99ers are oddly invisible. They have had no mass protests in state capitals, no marches on Washington, no storming of Wall Street. Why?

A lack of leadership is one factor: The 99ers are spread across the country and are only loosely organized, mostly through websites and a weekly chat on Twitter. A lack of cash is another. They can't pony up funds for buses to D.C. or New York. And many can't afford Internet service, which hinders online organizing.

Psychology also plays a role. Many 99ers I've talked to are battling a sense of shame at having lost a long-held job, and so they often keep quiet about their crises. "You don't want to walk out in the street and put a sign on and say, "Hey, I'm unemployed, look at me,'" says Rhonda Taylor, a 99er advocate from Rhode Island.

But one of the biggest reasons for 99ers' invisibility is a surprising one, given their potential political value: a lack of allies.

Being a 99er is, under the best circumstances, a transient state. People don't want to build an organization around an identity they're trying to shake off. That makes finding allies a challenge.

As allies go, however, labor unions would seem to be a good option: Their resources and recent media attention make them attractive partners. But unions, by definition, represent people working in specific sectors. The 99ers, by definition, aren't working at all. Some 99ers look at the protests around wage and benefits cuts with skepticism. Public workers may be losing pay, but at least they have jobs.

The 99ers could also align themselves with groups focused on issues of poverty, income inequality, and public benefits. That means groups like the National People's Action, a coalition working "to advance a national economic and racial justice agenda." Ninety-nine weeks ago, that might have meant ACORN, but much can change in 99 weeks.

These groups, however, tend to lean left politically -- and the 99ers I've talked to run the gamut, from conservatives (like Drescher) and former Tea Party activists to lifelong Democrats. With any potential ally, says Jason Tabrys, who organizes the weekly 99er Twitter chats, "it's about these causes being a little bit flexible, and letting their messages merge." Besides, he adds, "I'll work with anyone, left, right and center. Our people just want to survive."

Despite their circumstances, most 99ers don't see themselves as poor but rather as middle-class people fighting a temporary setback. Unemployment is for workers going through a rough patch. Welfare and food stamps are for the underclass. "We're not the typical system suckers," JD Galvin, a 99er from Illinois, told me. "We're not used to handouts."

Lacking an ally among traditional interest groups, the 99ers have taken their case directly to Washington, pushing for legislation to create additional weeks of unemployment benefits and give jobless Americans more time to find work. Support for such legislation could be lawmakers' ticket to winning over this valuable constituency. Reps. Barbara Lee and Bobby Scott have taken a stab at it, introducing a bill to add 14 weeks of unemployment benefits. H.R. 589 has 74 co-sponsors, all Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor reportedly agreed last week to meet with Lee and Scott about the bill, but prospects for passage are dim, given the GOP's determination to pay for any extension with existing funds or to offset it with spending cuts.

The 99ers are making no secret of their potential value to political candidates. With or without allies, they are looking ahead to the next election season.

"We're a big voting base," Taylor says. "As we get organized, we're not going to choose between who's worse. We'll run our own candidate if we have to."

Ultimately, of course, the 99ers don't just want more unemployment help. "I want to get up in the morning and go to work," Drescher says. "But I feel like it might never happen."

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