In his State of the Union address last night, the President laid out a strong vision based on opportunity, action and optimism. It has at its core a belief that America is strong when the middle class is strong.
Misty DeMars of Oak Park, Ill., had a great seat for it – right between First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden in the House chamber. She got the invitation after writing a letter to President Obama about her struggle finding work after losing the job she loved. The President cited her struggles as the perfect example of why Congress needs to extend the lifeline of unemployment benefits that have been cut off for 1.6 million Americans.
A few hours before the president’s speech, I had the chance to sit down with Misty and her husband, Leighton, in my office and hear about what they’re going through.
Almost nine months ago, they closed on their new home, a bungalow in which they invested their life savings. A week after they moved in, she got the shocking news that after eight years working at a museum, she was being let go due to budget cuts. She was blindsided; they had recently assured her there would be no layoffs. As Misty put it: “It was just like getting hit in the side of the head with a rock.”
She is working hard to find a new position, but nothing has come through yet. She explained that the most frustrating thing – and the reason she wrote the president – was the suggestion by some that being unemployed was her choice or her fault.
In her letter, she said that in a matter of months “we stand to lose everything we’ve worked for years to build.” But Misty and her husband remain optimistic and resilient, mostly for their young children. As she showed me a picture of her two boys, she talked about how the older one in particular loved their new house. Her voice cracked a little when she said: “That is what we’re working for – so that I never have to come to the day to tell him that he doesn’t have his own house.”
Misty grew up poor in a small North Dakota town. She put herself through college. She didn’t ask for handouts. She set goals and worked hard to achieve them. She has marketable skills and a sense of personal responsibility. She provides a stable home for her children. She is exactly whom the president is referring to when he talks about America’s “simple, profound belief in opportunity for all” and the belief that “our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.”
Misty is humble. Toward the end of our meeting, she expressed a little bit of awe at being in Washington and in the spotlight. “It’s not for anything courageous I’ve done,” she said. I told her that’s the one thing I disagreed with her about. Enduring this kind of hardship takes courage. And speaking out about it is an act of courage that millions of other Americans, especially those going through a similar crisis, will appreciate.
Let’s honor Misty’s courage. If we give her the chance she’s asking for, we’ll all be stronger for it. As the president said, Misty and so many like her “need our help, but more important, this country needs them in the game.”