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Amid Benefits Lapse, Local Jobless Advocate Heads to White House

As unemployment benefits dry up for thousands in New Jersey, Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder heads to D.C. to talk jobs.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder John Fugazzie to meet with U.S. Labor Secretary Wednesday. / file photo
Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder John Fugazzie to meet with U.S. Labor Secretary Wednesday. / file photo

Part out of necessity, John Fugazzie has developed an expertise in the last three years on the issues challenging the Great Recession’s long-term unemployed.

As Washington dives into debate this week over an extension of unemployment benefits to that group of long-displaced workers, the Neighbors Helping Neighbors founder heads to the White House Wednesday to deliver what to him has become a familiar message.

“My economic decline started a long time ago,” Fugazzie said. “This isn’t a new thing for me.”

The networking and support group, founded in Bergen County in January 2011, after Fugazzie himself was put out of work, has forged 360 success stories from its weekly meetings in local libraries. But the challenges remain, in a transformed job market where many who do find work land with fewer hours or less pay.

Fugazzie hopes to speak from his local experience with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, whom representatives of Neighbors Helping Neighbors will be meeting along with two other jobless groups based in Virginia and Maryland.

“We’re going to talk about the kinds of barriers, the kinds of things that are hurting the long-term unemployed,” he said. “The job situation is not going to get solved by one party or the other. This is a national crisis and it impacts more than the people who are out of work.”

Politics will loom large in the backdrop of the Washington meeting, however. The White House is pushing this week for a new three-month extension of emergency unemployment benefits, as Republicans on Capitol Hill call for any extension to be offset by other spending cuts.

About 1.3 million Americans lost unemployment insurance Dec. 28, including more than 90,000 in New Jersey, according to data compiled by Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee. Without congressional action, another 89,000 in the state are expected to lose benefits in the next six months.

And those statistics don’t touch the true number of people struggling in the job market, Fugazzie says. Unemployment is often undercounted by the government, which tallies those receiving benefits but not those who are underemployed or have fallen out of the job market entirely.

Moreover, the cuts in benefits will likely dampen the spending needed to maintain an economy inching toward recovery, Fugazzie contends.  And the loss of benefits ramps up the pressure on those already struggling to find work.

“The issue is silly – that they’re not together on this one,” he said. “It’s an economic stimulus plan. Unemployed people put the money immediately back into the marketplace. And it’s mostly for food.”

“There’s nobody who is sitting at home enjoying unemployment benefits,” he continued. “At the end of the day, these federal benefits are a stimulus to the economy. And our economy is nowhere near where it needs to be.”

And that, beyond the political back and forth, is the point Fugazzie – as a self-described "poster boy" for the unemployed – strives to convey in his national media appearances and discussions with politicians. That the unemployed he meets with each week have marketable skills but find themselves in a economy stacked structurally against them.

“There’s a growing gap between the very wealthy and the middle class,” he said. “The middle class is losing ground constantly. People are struggling, losing their houses, and the collateral damage is tremendous.”

Locally, Neighbors Helping Neighbors meets at libraries in Ridgewood, River Edge, Westwood, Fair Lawn, Oakland, Hasbrouck Heights and Waldwick,

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