After Barack Obama's speech and Marco Rubio's rebuttal, we should have heard from Kim Peters.
The 47-year-old single mother, who has been more or less unemployed since the start of the Great Recession, wore fuzzy Shrek slippers as she watched the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night from the middle of an empty living room south of Atlanta.
If the country and the president could have peered back at her through her small TV, they would have seen the piles of black trash bags, full of clothes, in the corners of the room. They haven't been unpacked since she was evicted from her last apartment. They would have seen the worry in her eyes -- felt the panic that wakes her up at 3 a.m. and makes her wonder how long it will be before she and her 7-year-old daughter end up homeless.
"It's just horrible," Peters said of being unemployed for years. "I fill out so many applications and they just go nowhere. ... I'm ready to tear up right now. It's just horrible."
I met Peters on Tuesday morning, before the State of the Union, at a Georgia employment center, where she was updating her resume at the back of a crowded room. She kindly agreed to let me come to her home that night to watch the president's speech from her point of view -- that of a person who is stuck in a cycle of unemployment.
The long-term unemployed are among the most put-down and discriminated against people in America today. They have no resources. And they have no voice.
Before a layoff in October 2008, Peters told me, she was working as an administrative assistant at an auto repair shop. Her resume describes a "Highly Reliable Self-Starter with Many Years of Successful Office Support Experience." But she's only had one solid stint of employment -- for about a year and a half -- in the last five years. Her last full-time job, she said, ended in October 2011.
She's come to feel her resume is a curse, since it brands her as chronically unemployed -- which, by some crazy-messed-up logic, means it's harder for her to get a job than someone who already has one.
Many people will remember Obama's speech on Tuesday for his emotional call to action on gun control; but for the 4.7 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than six months, the president's address also dredged up doubt, fear and anxiety. Peters went into the speech saying she thought it would give her more hope; she came out doubting much will change.
For the long-term unemployed, the economy isn't in "recession hangover" mode, as some have suggested. It's still in crisis. In some states, including Illinois and Georgia, nearly 40% of unemployed people have been out of work for a year or more. Nationally, the average duration is nearly 8 months.
"Very long periods of unemployment were only rarely reported in the United States before the Great Recession. Laid-off workers, along with those just entering the labor force, typically found jobs relatively quickly," the Brookings Institution wrote in a report titled "Long-Term Unemployment: Anatomy of the Scourge." "From 1990 to 2007, for example, more than a quarter of all American workers who were classified as unemployed in a given month found jobs the following month."
If Obama's assertion that "our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others" is correct, then we all should do a better job at helping these folks. And part of that may be just seeking to understand them.
Is the State of our Union strong?
After Peters greeted me at the door, she settled into her patchwork chair, one of the only pieces of furniture she kept after the eviction notice came a couple weeks ago.
She knew the day would come. She was months behind on rent. But she had hoped to buy more time. She gathered up her things and called friends and family members to scrape together the money to pay the deposit on this new place, a duplex in a neighborhood so close to the airport that a plane swooping overhead gave me the "Duck!" reflex. She also called homeless shelters, thinking that might be her only option if the money didn't come through.
She thanks God daily that she has a roof over her head.
At the beginning of Obama's speech, Peters was optimistic. And she was encouraged, initially, that the president was focusing on jobs. The president rattled off positive stats about the economy -- 6 million new jobs, a stock market that's "rebounding," a housing sector on the mend -- before declaring that "the state of our union is strong."
Something about that didn't sit quite right with Peters. She wanted to hear more about jobs.
Obama went on, saying that far too many Americans are out of work ("Thank you! Now you're talking!"), and Peters decided to tell me a story of her own. Her daughter was at school recently when a teacher asked her what she would ask Martin Luther King Jr. if she had one question. "I would ask Martin Luther King to give my momma a job," she said. "When she told me that, I bursted out crying," Peters told me.
Asking for help
Peters describes herself as a strong "independent woman" type -- not someone who gets emotional or asks for help. That's all changed lately, though.
Friends have recommended she seek treatment for depression. There are some days, she told me, when she feels like all of the vigor is gone. It's hard to get out of the chair.
She grew up in the Bronx dreaming of becoming a detective. Now she's undercover in a different way, hiding as much as she can the fact that she's struggling to make it.
She's embarrassed about the fact that her daughter's school class donated Christmas presents for her family last year. But it meant the world to her because she wouldn't have had a holiday otherwise. "That keeps me strong," she said.
It's common knowledge these days that the longer you've been out of work, the harder it is to find a job. Depression is one outcome of long-term unemployment, and it can cause a job search to be dead on arrival. Then there's also the fact that, as several reports have shown, employers prefer to hire the already-employed.