Lumberton, N.C. — The strain of losing unemployment benefits continues to grow for thousands of North Carolina families with each passing week.
About 65,000 people who have been out of work for months lost their federal jobless benefits on July 1 because of state lawmakers' decision to overhaul North Carolina's unemployment system. The maximum weekly benefit and the length of benefits were slashed to help repay more quickly $2.5 billion owed to the federal government for its assistance with benefits during the recession.
Lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory say the changes are for the greater good and will eventually boost North Carolina's economy. In the short term, however, people who counted on their weekly unemployment check to get by say they are struggling.
"I just have a savings account, and there's $1 in the savings account," Sydney Houston said Wednesday.
The Lumberton woman was eligible to receive unemployment through the end of the year, but the state changes meant the end of all federal long-term benefits.
"It's been excruciating," she said, noting that her electricity was recently turned off because she was months behind in her bills.
"I was here ironing my clothes so that I could go to a job interview, and all I heard was 'zooop,'" she said. "To get them to turn it back on, it's $488.74."
As Houston empties her freezer and refrigerator to salvage what little food she has left, she knows that a visit from the landlord means the apartment is next.
"He even told me, if I could come up with just one month's rent, $400, that he would let me stay and work with me," she said.
She's reached out to friends, family, county organizations and nonprofits for help.
"Nobody has any funds," she said. "Even my own church, the benevolent fund they set up to help people, it's dry," she said.
Houston, who worked for the state prison system for 14 years before losing her job, is trying to become a teacher. She hopes to take the certification test in October, but it costs $115.
She also faces an uphill climb in Robeson County, where the unemployment rate was 13 percent in July. Statewide, the unemployment rate is 8.9 percent.
"I pray that somebody will see this (story) and help me, but I want them to help all the people of North Carolina," she said. "Every day, there's a sadder story than mine."