On the same day the story broke about the big raises for two inexperienced staffers at the NC Department of Health and Human Services I received an e-mail from Sydney Houston, a woman we had interviewed a month earlier for our documentary “Cut Loose and Cut Off." She’s one of the 70,000 people who lost federally funded extended unemployment benefits on July 1. She wrote that her electricity had been cut off. That will certainly make her job hunt easier.
Houston recently finished her master’s degree and is trying to get a teaching position at a local public school, a job that will pay about half what those DHHS staffers are making but will likely do far more to serve the public good, which is supposed to be the point of being a public servant.
Houston is one of the people Representative Julia Howard calls “welfare dependent." Howard helped lead the effort to pass House Bill 4, which overhauled North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system and led to the termination of federal funding for the extended benefits unemployed workers get when their state benefits run out.
Those benefits are designed for exactly the situation we’ve experienced over the last five years: a severe recession followed by chronic high unemployment. It’s easy to expect people to just “get a job” like the lyric in that old Bruce Hornsby hit, but it’s hard for people to do that when there is only one available job for every three unemployed workers in our state.
In all the debate over House Bill 4, in interviews and public statements, its supporters rarely, if ever, mention the people it affects the most, people like Sydney Houston, who lost their benefits and are now trying to figure out how to pay the bills. The primary purpose of our documentary “Cut Loose and Cut Off” is to give them a voice.
The WRAL Documentary “Cut Loose and Cut Off” is hosted by WRAL News anchor Bill Leslie. It airs Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, at 7 p.m.