James Chukalas learned that some Americans hate the jobless after he stood next to President Barack Obama during a 2010 Rose Garden press conference. The president had urged Congress to quit blocking unemployment insurance so people like Chukalas, who had lost his car dealership job in 2008, could feed their families.
"I've been called everything from a freeloader to things I can't repeat right now because I stood with the president," Chukalas, of Fredon Township, N.J., said in an interview on Tuesday. "It really offended me. I had people who don't know me from a hole in the wall and they're talking smack about me. Don't judge me before you’ve walked a week in my shoes."
Chukalas had a similar reaction when he heard Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney say in a recently released video that 47 percent of America pays no income taxes, is dependent on government programs, and will therefore vote for Obama. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney said.
"I think I'm the kind of person he’s talking about, but without walking a week in my shoes, don't judge me," Chukalas said.
In his Rose Garden remarks in 2010, Obama urged the U.S. Senate to end a standoff that halted unemployment benefits for 2.5 million, including Chukalas and two other people who stood at the president's side.
"Jim has posted resumes everywhere, and even gone door-to-door looking for jobs, but hasn’t gotten a single interview," Obama said. "He’s trying to be strong for his two young kids, but now that he’s exhausted his unemployment benefits, that’s getting harder to do."
One of the other people who joined the president that day turned out to have a felony conviction, resulting in a nasty backlash. Chukalas said he didn't like getting swept up in the critical commentary on TV. "They started saying stuff like, 'What do we know about the other two? They couldn't find three people with a clean record?'"
Back then, combined state and federal unemployment insurance lasted up to 99 weeks. Now it's down to 73 weeks, and the number of people receiving benefits is declining faster than the number of people unemployed. At the end of the year, Congress must once again decide whether to reauthorize federal benefits or else leave the jobless with a maximum of 26 weeks.
Chukalas ran out of unemployment insurance long ago, but still does not have a job. With his two young kids back in school, he said he is revving up his job search and submitting resumes around town on Tuesday. Chukalas said his wife is still working and that his family is getting by with less.
"I've become a halfway decent housewife and a better cook," he said. "We could be worse off but we're surviving. I pretty much cut up the credit cards. If I can't afford it on my debit card, I don't buy it."
As for Romney's comments, Chukalas said he suspects there are some people who really are content to avoid work and receive government benefits -- just not nearly as many as Romney says.
"I’m sure some are content receiving a welfare check or unemployment check. Me, I wasn’t," he said. "At the same time, I want to think it's not 47 percent."