THE LITTLE things went first.
Trips to the movies stopped long ago. It was tougher for Rebecca Woods to pass up a seat at her church's women's day luncheon.
Still, she had to. The $35 ticket was well beyond the reach of the Philadelphia cook. She was laid off, she said in an interview, from her job at the city's airport Marriott last April.
Next, Woods fears she'll start missing mortgage payments on the house she was raised in. It is the house where she raised her own kids and where she still lives, in a neighborhood where she is known as a caretaker - somebody who spends her time, now that she's out of work, taking elderly neighbors to the grocery store, or out to pick up their medicine.
"It's frustrating, aggravating. I'm depressed," said Woods, who has applied for jobs at every conceivable place that serves food - restaurants, hotels, hospital kitchens, colleges. No one is hiring, not even someone like Woods, with 14 years of experience. "I've looked everywhere." She also has been to the public-assistance office. The first time ever. There was no choice, she said, not after her unemployment benefits ran out last November. She is fully capable of living on just a little. But no one can live on nothing.
It is a bit of logic that seems altogether to have escaped the U.S. Congress. In this most unusual recession, the unemployed are only an asterisk.
Every other downturn has been met with alarm - and action.
Unemployment benefits in the recession of 1975 were extended from the usual 26 weeks to 65 weeks. In 1982, the feds stretched benefits to 49 weeks; in 1992, extensions went to 59 weeks.
Now, with the number of laid-off workers exhausting benefits estimated at 11,000 per week, this is what happened: The House of Representatives went home for its winter break without cutting them a break.
The Senate twice has passed - unanimously - a straightforward, 13-week extension of unemployment benefits. The House Republican leadership persists in hitching the benefit extension to the lame horse of its economic "stimulus" package of tax cuts, mostly for business.
This ungainly bill passed the House for the third time on Thursday, just before members fled Washington. The Senate already has rejected the same measure.
President George W. Bush has said he wants an extension, but he has remained aloof. If Bush said he wanted the House to pass a stripped-down bill so that people like Rebecca Woods don't have to turn to welfare, chances are the leaders of his own party would comply.
There's been no such word.
The House Republican moderates, who forever complain about their tin-eared leadership, whisper again. Some have let it be known they would prefer a clean unemployment-extension bill. But they are, as a group, a cowardly lot, unwilling to shape their dissent into a voting bloc to force change.
So there is, at the moment, no hope that people who lost their jobs will be spared the indignity of signing up for welfare, or falling behind on the mortgage. About a million workers exhausted their unemployment benefits between Sept. 11 and the end of last year.
Another 2 million are expected to run out of benefits in the first half of this year, according a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which based its analysis on Labor Department data. The recession may be winding down, but unemployment is, by most economists' reckoning, winding up. That is how it usually goes. Hiring doesn't pick up for at least a few months after Wall Street says things are perking up.
This recession is an oddity. No one really knew when it started, except people like Woods who got laid off first. Now, no one has noticed how clear and consistent Washington's response has been. Forget about message: I care.
Now it's message: Tough luck.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.