CLEVELAND – Kimberly Smith holds up the piece of paper that is the only thing keeping her from bankruptcy: an application for extended unemployment benefits. She's not happy that she needs it. And she's upset that it was nearly taken away.
"I do deserve it," the 49-year-old says. "I've done everything I could to try and get a job. I tried to get back into the retail industry. I made the effort to, at my age, go back to college."
President Barack Obama extended unemployment benefits for Smith and millions of other Americans when he signed tax-cut legislation Friday. It helps people who have been out of work more than 26 weeks but less than 99 weeks, though the benefits vary greatly from state to state.
They could be just about anybody. People with college degrees and people with no higher education. People who have resorted to living out of their cars. People who have cashed out their retirement savings. People who once held six-figure jobs and people like Smith, who was laid off from her job as a department manager at a jeweler's a year and a half ago.
What unites them is the bitterness in their voices as they talk about how badly they need unemployment benefits — to clothe their children, to pay for heat, to save their homes from foreclosure.
"My options are to not pay my bills, have my house taken away, have creditors on me," says Smith, a mother of two in Lyndhurst, Ohio, who has been supporting her family on an unemployment check that amounts to $477 a week before taxes.
In Ohio and the 24 other states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent, the unemployed can receive benefits for up to 99 weeks. In other states, they get less than that — in some cases as few as 60 weeks, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The new law restores, for 13 more months, the 99-week maximum. It also renews federal programs that extend benefits beyond the 26 weeks that states always provide. Those federal programs had expired Nov. 30.
For unemployed people who spoke to The Associated Press across the country, the extension is a relief, but a shadow of the relief a new job would provide. They are frustrated not only with their struggles to find work, but with the accusations — on TV, even by protesters outside the office for food stamps — that they're lazy, that they're not trying hard enough.
Right now, there is nothing Smith would like more than a job. Anything to get her out of her living room, where she spends her days trolling the Internet for jobs while the snow piles up outside.
Before her job with the jeweler, she spent two decades working for a fashion retailer that ended up leaving northeast Ohio.
Smith doesn't intend to settle for a low-skill, low-wage job, saying she's not going to "throw myself into poverty."
"That's just making people settle for whatever can be had," she said. "Speaking for myself, I didn't spend 25 years in a career that was supposed to be my livelihood for the rest of my life to go work at a Starbucks."
Instead, she has re-educated herself.
There are jobs in the medical industry, people told her. So she went back to school and became a certified medical assistant. Weeks blurred into months. And still Smith cannot find a job.
"We, the middle class, are just trying to keep our heads above water," she says. "And you know what? We're drowning."
"THEY HAVE NO IDEA"
"If I hear one more senator, congressman, TV pundit or whatever..."
Theresa Christenson can't finish the sentence before breaking into tears.
"It really gets me when they say 'you lazy people,'" says Christenson, who lives on $1,720 a month in unemployment insurance benefits and what's left of her dwindling 401K. "They have no idea how depressing that is when you have been beating your head against the wall, trying to find work. Every time I see that or read it, I just start crying. They have no idea."
Before she was laid off from a quality assurance job at Yahoo! in July 2009, Christenson, of Burbank, Calif., earned around $100,000 a year. The 58-year-old has managed to hang on to the 4-bedroom house that she co-owns with her sister, where they've lived for 22 years. Without the extension, she expected to lose the stucco, one-story "house that looks like every other house."
She knows she's better off than others, but depression has set in during the long, hard months of fruitless searching.
"People who have lost their homes and are now living out of their car — my heart shatters for them," she says. "I'm very, very thankful for the extension."
Yet she says she's disgusted by the deal between Obama and congressional Republicans that made the extension possible — a deal that preserved tax cuts for the wealthy as well as the poor.
"I hate the cost," she says. "That we got it at the cost of millionaires and billionaires getting to keep their money and stay at the same tax rate."
WINTER TO OUTLAST BENEFITS
The furnace broke down not long ago in Tina Price's ranch home in Southfield, Mich., so she resorted to plugging in space heaters to keep her children warm. The 36-year-old mother of two young boys doesn't expect much of a Christmas this year.
Her unemployment benefits were cut off in November and she's been unemployed for about 92 weeks. She took a buyout from American Axle several years ago and hasn't had steady employment since.
"I was just able to get them boots," Price says of her children. "I'm just trying to keep my utilities on. There is absolutely nothing I can do at this point."
The biweekly unemployment checks worth about $670 will last a few more weeks thanks to the new extension. But not enough to get her family through the winter.
"I'm still struggling to get things right," she says. "My bills are sky-high because I have not been able to pay them — the light bill, gas bill and water bill. I try to keep agreements with the utilities."
Price still receives state assistance to buy food. Friends, family and "generous people" have also been helping, she says. She's taking information technology classes as part of a career retraining program.
"I think everyone, right now, is stressed out," she says.
SAVVY, 60, STRIKING OUT
Mike Bryson left Pittsburgh when the steel industry collapsed, heading south for greener pastures in the form of Maryland's electronics and computer industry. He found a job there but returned when it ended, and has been out of work since August 2009.
Bryson has experience and education — he recently attended a technical training center and has many computer certifications — but the 60-year-old believes his age has made it more difficult to find a job. He's sent out hundreds of resumes.
"Right now, I'm computer savvy, Internet savvy, degreed, certified," he says. "And I can't find anything."
Bryson was homeless and lived in his car for a while before finding the McKees Rocks Employment and Training Center, where he now works about 20 hours a week, making minimum wage and, ironically, helping other people improve their resumes and find work.
He still qualifies for about $200 a month in unemployment benefits, but says it's still hard to make ends meet. He has no health insurance and fears what will happen when his car, which has more than 200,000 miles on it, breaks down for good.
"I want to work. I want a job. I'm tired of this," Bryson says. "I have a car that's breaking down on me everyday. I can't live like this."
LAYOFF AFTER LAYOFF
Without the unemployment extension, Joan Niedhardt would have lost the roof over her head to foreclosure. She is living through her third bout of unemployment since 2004, when budget cuts cost her a $65,000-a-year job as an information technology project manager in state government.
"I am my only means of support," says Niedhardt, of Bel Air, Md., who has been unemployed for the past six months. She desperately needs her current unemployment benefits, which would have run out next week.
She has worked as a grant writer, a public relations executive, a project manager, a web designer. After losing her job in state government, she went back to school for another degree in business management and computer science and a certification in web graphic design.
The other stretches of unemployment lasted nine months and two years, respectively.
Because she is overqualified for many jobs and nearing retirement age, Niedhardt suspects that employers worry she will leave for "something better that hasn't come along in over six years."
"I'd be perfect as a government contractor or employee, but most of the open positions require a current security clearance," she says, "which you can't get without an employee sponsor."
A TREE WITH NO PRESENTS
Zyola Nix is grateful that her 3-year-old daughter is too young to remember this Christmas in years to come. The 40-year-old single mother, who was laid off in March from a job in electrical mechanical design, put up a Christmas tree in their one-bedroom apartment. But there aren't any presents beneath it.
"I don't have an actual gift I can give her," says Nix, of Denver. "For my daughter, it's going to be like any other day."
Nix worries about finding work in the aerospace and defense sectors, which have suffered from cuts to federal programs. She has a bachelor's degree in engineering and astrophysics, "which is cool-sounding on paper but doesn't do much in the workplace."
She's grateful for the benefits extension — she gets about $1,600 a month, half of what she used to make. But she'd rather be working.
Reluctantly, but out of necessity, she's gone to sign up for food stamps twice. Each time, Nix had to pass protesters who told her to get a job and stop mooching off the government.
"I don't think some people ever could understand. I don't think they have the capacity to understand," she says. "They have an image of what an unemployed person is like, and there is no way to change that image until that person experiences true unemployment. And most of them never will."
Associated Press Writers Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles, Corey Williams in Detroit, Jennifer C. Yates in Pittsburgh, Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland and Alex Dominguez in Baltimore contributed to this report.