In a bittersweet twist of fate, it's the hard times that Maryland resident Cheryl Williams experienced growing up that have given her the strength to endure the financial challenges she faces today. Still, Williams, 54, never imagined that at this stage of life she and husband Waldo, 62, would be among the more than one million people in a panic about how they'll survive if Congress doesn't restore the emergency unemployment insurance benefits that expired a month ago.
In many ways, Williams' path mirrors the narrative President Obama frequently espouses in soaring speeches about income inequality and upward mobility. With the kind of helping hand he urges, her mother, who was both single and a high school dropout, found a way to not only go back to school while raising three daughters, but also earn a law degree. Her example inspires Williams to this day.
"As a young child, I grew up in hard times, so I know how to buckle down, but I thought that if you did all of the right things, you went to school and tried your best, that things would work out for you," she said in an interview with BET.com. "It's almost like I'm repeating a cycle that I had no control over as a child. But without that experience, I don't know where I'd be; whether I'd have any type of sanity right now."
Williams earned an undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University and worked in the field of education for 17 years. Not long after she and her husband were married 15 years ago, they bought their home. She and her sisters are the first generation of their family to achieve that goal.
In 2007, having risen up the ranks in her field, Williams left to build what promised to be a thriving insurance business. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, which made working difficult, and the economy crashed.
Her husband, a painter and carpenter by trade, worked in property management until March 2013, when he was laid off after 15 years. So just when he was preparing for retirement, he began collecting unemployment insurance. The couple hoped to use that time to build a home improvement business and prepare Waldo to take a contractor's licensing test.
But once again, fate got in the way. The government temporarily shut down, which forced their business plan to be put on hold and made tough times tougher still. Williams' health issues, which include a lifelong battle with asthma, became more taxing and until they became eligible for Maryland's Primary Adult Care Program, the couple had no health insurance. Her husband began collecting Social Security in September, but it's just enough to cover their mortgage.
Williams is relieved to no longer have to worry about getting specialty care for her pre-existing health conditions, but what difference does it make, she wonders, if they become homeless or cannot afford to eat?
Winter temperatures are breaking records across the nation, forcing households like the Williams' to pay higher utility costs that they cannot afford. They each eat just one meal per day, worry about being able to pay their monthly cell phone bill since a landline is no longer an option, whether they'll be able to keep their life insurance policies – and of course their home.
"As the person who handles the finances, I try to figure out what we can not pay. But if they don't restore the unemployment insurance soon, in my household and others, things are going to be cut off," Williams said. "I'm praying to God that I'm not sitting in my house looking for a way to pay my mortgage and not knowing if I'm going to eat."
Her anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that her once-vibrant mother has Alzheimer's and Williams can no longer contribute to her care even the little bit that she did before the unemployment benefits were cut off.
She is angered by lawmakers who claim that unemployment benefits make recipients lazy and are an incentive to not look for work.
"Give people a chance. Just like the president said, I don't know anyone who'd rather have an unemployment check instead of a job – it's two-thirds of whatever it was you were earning before," she said. "If you're living paycheck to paycheck, why would you choose less?"
But Williams' faith helps sustain her and she prays "every single morning for our leaders to do the right thing and find the wisdom to make the right choices." She also worries about the toll the economy and government spending cuts can take on people who didn't have to learn at a young age how to be resilient.
"I'm positive that there are people out there who aren't doing as well as I am at this moment, but I'm not far from where they are. It just amazes me to have worked so hard to be where I was a long, long time ago," she says. "My husband is the great optimist. He says 'We're going to make it, we're going to make it,' but what else is a man going to say?"
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(Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)