When Randal Miller was clearing roads of bombs in Iraq – wondering if that day would be his last – politicians talked about how great he was. They spoke nonstop about how America needed to support veterans.
An Army soldier called to active duty from the National Guard, Miller left his wife, his kids and his job here to do the most dangerous job on Earth. Then he came home, went to school on the G.I. Bill to learn how to do heating and air conditioning work. He also worked construction where he could find it.
Miller, 26, worked when there was work. And when the work dried up, he applied for unemployment benefits.
Unemployment benefits for 2 million people just like Randal Miller were at stake in the “fiscal cliff” talks the past two months. Almost no politicians mentioned the benefits, and nobody mentioned Randal Miller and the other real people whose ability to keep the lights on depended on a deal.
“I served my country; we worked security and cleared bombs, and this is what I get for it,” Miller said. “Politicians arguing over whether I deserve the benefits I paid for. Ridiculous.”
A deal was struck over the last couple of days, saving the benefits for Miller and some 2 million others. But these unemployed people still have to go to the S.C. Works office, the job assistance center that is also where people go to get unemployment benefits.
Outside that office Wednesday, a woman got out of an old battered pickup and said, “I’m goin’ in the unemployment and these politicians get paid and they been on vacation since Thanksgiving. They oughta get a pay cut. Better, put them on unemployment.”
The regard outside for these politicians remains sour and bitter.
“I was in Desert Storm over there,” Steven Howard, 45, said of the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1990. “I work seasonal lawn care, and these politicians are playing games.
“They go back and forth and people who need these benefits have to watch them play the games. It’s a power game for them, plain and simple.”
These real people are frustrated by the political game of chicken that has held the poor, the old and the disabled in limbo for two months.
Out from the unemployment office walked a gray-haired man with a slight limp, 67-year-old Jerry Driggers.
“All my life I worked, until the work was gone,” Driggers said. “Plumbing, 35 years I did it. I paid into the system my whole working life.”
Driggers said he dropped out of school to go to work, then went back recently to enroll in GED classes to get a high school diploma – as a senior citizen.
“I have to do it to find work,” Driggers said.
Politicians spent weeks deciding if Jerry Driggers, old and tough, hands hard and callused, worked all his life – and now going to school again – was worth the unemployment benefits he earned.
“These politicians, they stay too long,” Driggers said. “We had the chance to clean house and we didn’t, and look what it got us. More of the same.”
Benefits were on the chopping block for part-time people such as Phyllis Knox and Patricia White, who work food service at Winthrop University and are off during the long winter break.
“People who worked all their lives, most people, they earned benefits,” said Knox.
Out from the unemployment office walked York’s Travis Deprey, 25, a self-employed construction worker – when there is work.
“The economy is better but still not great – hit and miss,” he said. “Sometimes there is work, sometimes not.”
So Deprey worked and did not work over the past two months. When finally not working won out, Deprey, a husband and father, had to ask a charity for help before his electricity was disconnected. He needed a piece of paper from the unemployment office that proved he was unemployed.
Politicians claimed they were working so hard on deciding if people such as Deprey mattered enough to pay the benefits to keep his family from darkness.
“People out here are having a hard time, working people who always worked, old people who depend on benefits they earned, and these guys are up there havin’ a debate on whether these people deserve anything,” Deprey said. “People worked. They deserve what they get after paying into the system.
“These politicians, they deserve something – but it sure isn’t benefits.”