It has been almost a month since Congress let emergency unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million Americans. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have bickered about how to reinstate these benefits, with little progress—a comprehensive unemployment bill recently failed in the Senate, and similar measures in the GOP-run House haven't even gotten a vote. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, has promised to press the issue when lawmakers return from recess next week. But until Congress comes to some sort of agreement, unemployed Americans will have to wait.
Shortly after Christmas, we spoke to sevenAmericans who were set to lose their benefits. We checked back with a few of them this week to ask how their situations have changed. We've also collected a few new stories—some directly, and some from other news outlets. Many of these people quoted here have chosen to remain anonymous so as not to damage their job prospects. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Name: Anonymous (previous story here) State: New York
"I hate to acknowledge it or admit it, as that seems to make it seem more real, but it is getting worse by the day. I am relying on money from relatives for necessities like heat, gas, food. I have simply stopped servicing any of my debt. It's a miserable feeling. The calls are coming daily. I was approved for food stamps in the month of November, but in December, my benefits were greatly reduced. [See more on reduced benefits here.] My ex is providing some help, for example, paying the co-pay for our son's diabetic supplies. Because my youngest is diabetic, with an allergy to peanuts, cheaper staples like pasta, white bread, rice, and peanut butter are not an option for us. The other three boys eat pasta all the time, but we cannot have peanut products in the house. I did not get the job I interviewed for and of course driving to/from the interview cost quite a bit. But I have at least a dozen resumes out just today. And we have heat, access to health care, relatives who will take us in, and I'm well educated. I'm in much better shape than most, I suspect. Something will happen soon and this will all be a nasty little memory."
Name: Heidi S. State: Michigan "I am 45 years old. I got divorced three and half years ago while I was self-employed. I wasn't making enough money to support myself, but I also couldn't find a good job, because I didn't finish my bachelor degree years ago. So I went back to college and took out loans for the whole thing. (I now owe more than $40,000.) I graduated with my degree in professional writing and journalism in December 2012. In February 2013, I realized that there weren't that many decent jobs in this field where I live, so I freelanced a bit while looking for a job and still collecting unemployment. I finally started to make enough to perhaps get off unemployment when I fell and broke my wrist and ankle in July 2013. Because of this, I couldn't do anything for two months. I lost the new clients I had found and couldn't pay my rent. I was also uninsured, so I now I have medical bills over $2,500. In September, 2013, I was evicted and ended up moving into my parents' summer cottage for the winter. I've been applying for 5-10 jobs each week, for the last two years. I've been told I am either too qualified or not qualified enough.
"When I had unemployment, I was able to put gas in my car and pay rent, utilities, and insurance. Now I cannot. I'm also running low on dog food, laundry soap, toilet paper, and things like that, which aren't covered by food stamps. I haven't bought any new clothes in more than three years, so my interview and work clothes are seriously outdated. I was able to pay my phone and internet bills for this month, but I'm worried how I will pay for both next month, without the unemployment. Without a phone or internet, I'm not sure how I will be able to find a job. The nearest library with computers is 20 minutes away."
Name: Anonymous (previous story here) State: Washington
"I'm lucky to have skills that can bring in some freelance income. I had already cut back many discretionary costs when I lost my job and was getting benefits. What's left now are mostly my fixed costs, so there's not much more I can cut. I don't have cable, but need my internet + DSL for job hunting. Still, I'm luckier than many. I am not in danger of losing my house or my car anytime soon, and at least I have long-term savings I can tap, even though I am loath to borrow from my future. My closest friends check in often and are very supportive. I have enough to eat and so does my dog. I am putting off a (not major) surgery she needs, though. A tooth started to ache yesterday. If I need a root canal, there goes another $2,000 I can't afford! Things feel precarious. After this many months, it gets harder to resist the stigma and harder to resist believing that there must be something really wrong with me, or I would have found work by now. I saw the first crocus blooming in my yard yesterday. It's a new year. Spring will come, and with it, a change in my circumstances, I hope!"
Name: Tara Dublin (previous story here) State: Washington
"Unfortunately, I'm still in the exact same place. I'm very worried about losing my house, I still apply for waitressing and retail jobs and all the other jobs I feel I could do, and I get no response. I'm incredibly terrified and frustrated. Right now I'm deciding if I should pay the power bill or buy gas for my car."
Name: Anonymous State: Illinois
"I'm a skilled technician in my thirties—just a few credits shy of my undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago—and I live with my brother to make ends meet. I worked as an office manager/IT professional after college, and then switched jobs in 2012. I ended up having a micro stroke that I was subsequently fired for. I was on emergency unemployment benefits from May to December. If I didn't sell drugs, I'd be dead. I sell weed primarily, but I will buy and sell anything. I'm looking to go back to school, but I will need more loans, and medical bills have been eating me alive. Luckily I have the support of friends and family. And I'm industrious, connected, and safe enough to have an illegal job, yet still make money (and am constantly being told I'm the most professional drug dealer they've ever met). I'm trying to get that money to be legal, but, baby steps."
Here are a few stories from other news outlets:
Lena Rouse, Ohio: "I have zero income right now, zero…This is the first month things haven't been paid yet." (WOSU)
Stan Osnowitz, Maryland: "I have two choices…I can take a job at McDonald's or something and give up everything I've studied and everything I've worked for and all the experience that I have. Or I can go to retirement." (Politico)
Kerstin Foster, Connecticut: "I'm one of the lucky people who has a job coming. What's going to happen to all the rest?" (CNN)
Clarissa Garcia Jewett, Florida: "You go from it being bad to being dire" (National Journal)
Amber Chatman, Texas: "I mean, I'm down to the basics. I don't have a fancy new car. I have my rent, my utilities, to provide a roof over me and my son's head." (Kera News)
Hunter Moore, "The Most Hated Man on the Internet"
Thursday morning, the FBI arrested 27-year-old Hunter Moore, the founder of "Is Anyone Up," a now defunct website dedicated to publishing revenge porn—softcore or hardcore amateur pornography supposedly submitted by scorned, anonymous exes and usually accompanied by the purported names and addresses of the people (usually women) depicted. Moore—dubbed "The Most Hated Man on the Internet" byRolling Stone—was taken into custody along with Charles Evens, 25, for allegedly conspiring to hack into the email accounts of hundreds of victims in order to steal nude photos and post them online. Moore and Evens were indicted in federal court in California and charged with one count of conspiracy, seven counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer, and seven counts of aggravated identity theft.
According to the Village Voice, Moore's website posted over two dozen nude photos a day, almost always of women, along with screenshots of the victims' names, social media accounts, and location, which he added in order to maximize Google search traffic. Last year, he was fined $250,000 for defamation after accusing an anti-bullying activist of possessing child porn. The local US attorney's office released a statement on the arrest. Here's an excerpt:
To obtain more photos to populate the site, Moore allegedly instructed Evens to gain unauthorized access to – in other words, to hack into – victims' e-mail accounts. Moore sent payments to Evens in exchange for nude photos obtained unlawfully from the victims' accounts. Moore then posted the illegally obtained photos on his website, without the victims' consent. The indictment alleges that Evens hacked into email accounts belonging to hundreds of victims.
Last summer, when Ariel Castro was on trial in Ohio for kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder, he made an unusual request to the judge: He wanted parental rights to visit the six-year-old daughter he had conceived through rape. Given the magnitude of the charges—Castro was ultimately sentenced to life without parole, plus 1,000 years in prison, before committing suicide in September—the judge denied the request. But Ohio has no law on the books preventing alleged or convicted rapists from seizing parental rights of the children they may have conceived through rape. That could soon change. Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives unanimouslypassed a bill, inspired by Castro, that would prevent this scenario in the future. And Ohio isn't the only state to take action on this. If Ohio enacts the bill, it will join a number of other states that have done so in the last year: Arkansas, Colorado,Florida, and Illinois. There is also a bipartisan bill pending in the House that would give financial incentives to states that pass these laws.
"I think it's great that more states are getting on board and passing legislation addressing the parental rights of men who father through rape," says Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago lawyer. She says her daughter was conceived through rape, and the father attempted to seize custody rights while she was pressing charges against him. "We've seen a sharp uptick in interest, which I largely contribute to states finally understanding that this is a real problem."
The Ohio bill, if signed into law, would make it so that rapists are unable to seize inheritance or parental rights of children they conceived through the rape (they do, however, still have to pay child support). A spokesperson for Ohio State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat who is one the bill's sponsors, says that she expects the legislation to be referred to a Senate committee as soon as this week.
At least 24 states now have laws addressing the custody of children conceived through rape. Two additional states have provisions on the issue that only apply if the victim is a minor or, in one of those cases, a stepchild or adopted child of the rapist. Another three states don't explicitly address conception, but restrict the parental rights of a father or mother who sexually abused the other parent. And among those states that do have laws, many require proof of conviction, or have unique exceptions to the rule. Utah, for example, allows convicted rapists to continue sharing custody if they are living with the mother and the child. Here's a map showing the breakdown of these laws by state (click on each state for more information):
On Tuesday, a federal grand jury indicted former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on 14 counts related to gifts the couple accepted from a businessman looking to curry favor with the McDonnell administration. McDonnell, whose one term in office expired in early January, was once considered a possible Republican vice presidential candidate before reports of his dealings with businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. cast a shadow over his last year-and-half in office.
In a statement, McDonnell apologized for his actions but maintained that he never did anything illegal: "I deeply regret accepting legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of which have been repaid with interest, and I have apologized for my poor judgment for which I take full responsibility. However, I repeat emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship. I never promised—and Mr. Williams and his company never received—any government benefit of any kind from me or my Administration. We did not violate the law, and I will use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations, and to prevail against this unjust overreach of the federal government."
Here's everything you need to know:
Who's Jonnie R. Williams Sr.? Until December, Williams was the CEO of Star Scientific, Inc., a dietary supplements company. The company's main products are Anatabloc—an anti-inflammatory supplement derived from tobacco plants—and smoking-cessation product CigRx. According to the indictment, Williams forged a friendship with the the McDonnells starting in 2009, after he gave Bob McDonnell use of his private jet during his gubernatorial campaign. McDonnell and Williams soon discovered that they both had a lot in common, according to the Associated Press: They both have large families, started their careers in health services, and honeymooned at the same spot in Maine. This isn't the first time Williams has had a run-in with federal investigators: In 1993, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined him $300,000 for peddling false medical claims.
What did Williams get out of this? Authorities say that in exchange for gifts, the McDonnellslegitimized and promoted Star Scientific products. Among the allegations: In February 2011, Bob and Maureen McDonnell praised Star Scientific's products at a dinner the company held in an effort to convince doctors to prescribe CigRx to their patients. In August, 2011, the defendants hosted an event for the launch of Star Scientific's Anatabloc product at the Governor's Mansion; the invitees included some university researchers Star Scientific wanted to perform clinical trials of Anatabloc. In October 2011, Maureen McDonnell attended another Star Scientific dinner to lend her support to Anatabloc, according to the indictment.
Could this have been avoided if the McDonnells had been nicer to their staff? Maybe. Things began to fall apart when the couple's chef, Todd Schneider, was accused of stealing food in 2012. Schneider denied any wrongdoing, instead implicating the McDonnell family themselves as the culprits. Upset about his treatment, he turned over a pile of documents revealing the tip of the iceberg of the family’s financially cozy relationship with Williams.
What will happen to McDonnell if he's found guilty? Per the Richmond Times Dispatch, the charges could put the couple behind bars for decades and carry a fine of more than $1 million. But prominent political couples don't normally receive maximum sentences. Top Virginia politicians in both parties have, at McDonnell’s request, lobbied the Department of Justice to go easy on him.
Is there a silver lining? If recent history is an indication, he'll probably get a reality show. Former Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted in 2009 for attempting to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. He was convicted one year later and is currently serving a 14-year sentence—but not before his wife, Patricia, raised funds for his legal fees by starring in the show I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who served six years in prison over federal corruption charges, landed a post-penitentiary gig as the co-star of short-lived A&E series The Governor's Wife.
On Friday, President Obama released his plan to reform the NSA's sweeping surveillance program. Obama offered much praise for the NSA, and he's not ending the agency's controversial bulk collection program, which scoops up information about Americans' telephone calls. But he is making substantial changes to how the program currently runs, indicating that he may be more willing to risk the ire of the intelligence community for the sake of transparency reforms, than he's been in the past. Many oversight questions, though, are still being left to the intelligence community, and the reforms Obama announced on Friday only address a sliver of the surveillance issues raised by the Snowden leaks. Most notably, the president did not address many of the internet-related revelations produced by the Snowden documents. But he tried to offer some real reform to civil libertarians (though hardly meeting the demands for widespread changes) while providing much support to the intelligence community, which will not likely cheer the reforms the president is implementing.
Bulk Phone Records Collection: Not Going Away, But More Hurdles for the NSA
The biggest change announced on Friday deals with the government's practice of sweeping up Americans' phone records in bulk—a practice that 60 percent of Americans oppose. Privacy advocates had hoped that Obama would take this opportunity to end the program. Instead, he announced that he'll be making some big changes to how it operates. He ordered the attorney general and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to implement a system in which NSA analysts must get approval from the FISA court to search the records. There will also be a new limit on the number of people the NSA can investigate via these records ("two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.") These are significant changes—ones that could ruffle feathers at the NSA, which has claimed that any changes to the program would undermine its ability to combat terrorism. However, the real test will be whether the judicial review process will be stringent enough to satisfy critics. In the past, the FISA court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp" court.
Bulk Phone Records Storage: Going Somewhere, No One Knows Where
Obama ordered the intelligence community and the attorney general to come up with a new way to store phone records collected under the program, without having the government hold on to this data. This certainly will create some hurdles for the NSA, but it doesn't mean that the NSA is no longer permitted to collect telephone records. It's just about how they'll be stored. While the intelligence community has to come up with recommendations before March 28, it's entirely unclear when this policy will be implemented, because no third-party outside of phone companies—which have indicated they don't want this responsibility—really exists.
National Security Letters: Less Secret, Still No Judicial Oversight
Obama is making some modest changes to the process by which the government can use National Security Letters to compel businesses to secretly provide private records to federal investigators. Companies will now be able to disclose these requests—but at some yet-to-be determined point. The specifics are up to the attorney general. Privacy advocates will undoubtedly be disappointed by the fact that Obama is refusing to require judicial review before the government issues these secret orders.
The Top-Secret Spy Court: More Transparency, But Congress Should Figure It Out
Obama is asking the director of national intelligence and the attorney general to annually review which decisions made by the FISA court can be declassified. He is also asking Congress to put together a panel of advocates that will provide an independent voice in "significant cases before the court." This is not quite as strong as having an in-house privacy advocate on every case, but it's a serious change.
And...that's pretty much it. Obama's reforms don't cover reports that the NSA has been working to undermine the internet's encryption—such as by hacking into Google—and don't entail a major overhaul of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which governs PRISM, the program that's been accused of sweeping up internet communications. So it seems that any kind of online surveillance the government may be carrying out, will remain largely intact: "We’d hoped for, and the internet deserves, more," says Alex Fowler, global privacy and policy leader at Mozilla. "We’re concerned that the President didn’t address the most glaring reform needs."
Obama maintains that there have been no alleged abuses of the telephone records collection program, which contradicts what the top-secret spy court has found. But his reforms indicate a greater willingness to reconsider aspects of the NSA's surveillance programs, and they've somewhat exceeded expectations. He does say these reforms are only a start, which might be a small comfort to privacy advocates who are looking for much more.