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Unemployment's toll: 'I feel like less of a man'

Mark Potter / NBC News

Juan and Gina Montes from Miami discuss how difficult their financial situation has been since Juan has been out of work for three years.

By Mark Potter, NBC News Correspondent  

MIAMI – In a well-kept home along a quiet street, Juan Montes practices his guitar and hopes it will bring temporary respite from the worries, shame and financial pressures of long-term unemployment in America.

For nearly 30 years, Montes worked in construction to support his family. After he was laid off from U.S. Steel in Ohio in 1983, he became a wallpaper installer. He then moved to South Florida in 1991 and eventually got a general contractor’s license. He did remodeling jobs, home additions, office construction and build-outs of medical facilities. Then three years ago, as the United States fell into recession, the bottom fell out of the construction industry and the 57-year-old hasn't been able to find work since.

Without work, Montes and his wife have run out of money. Her part-time job as an assistant administrator for a retirement fund doesn't cover expenses and provides no insurance. The family faces tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, and this once proud provider is now feeling very low emotionally. 

The Senate failed to pass President Obama's jobs bill, even as the unemployment rate remained steady at 9.1 percent in September. NBC's Mark Potter looks at the faces of those hardest-hit by the lack of jobs nationwide.

"It makes you feel like less of a man," Montes said. "When you've done everything for yourself all your life and it's not there anymore, that security, it's a bad feeling."

Worst of all, Montes recently had to ask his grown son for help in paying his utility bill. "I'm not supposed to be asking my son for help. I'm supposed to be helping him."

Upset with Washington
Montes' wife, Gina, is frustrated with the endless bickering among politicians and the lack of progress in Washington toward improving the economy and adding jobs. She wishes members of Congress would stand in her shoes for a while and feel what it’s like to have to struggle to make ends meet.

"We've been begging and borrowing and humiliating ourselves. Let them see how that feels, let them know that it's not good," she said.

When asked how she believes elected representatives would feel if they actually did walk in her shoes, she replied, "They wouldn't feel very good right now. They would not. They would feel like something has to be done."

Her husband believes Congress is "oblivious" to the emotional and financial suffering of the unemployed. "I don't sleep, I sleep an hour here, I sleep an hour there. I walk the house, what am I going to do?" Montes said.

He agrees with his wife that politicians need to reach agreement on how to create jobs. "They've just got to stop fighting with each other. We're supposed to be all Americans!"

‘I don't know how I'm going to make it’
Michael McGowan from Farmington Hills, near Detroit, has been teaching music at elementary and middle schools for 17 years, but is now looking for work. He recently received a notice by mail that he will be laid off.

Juan Montes a general contractor who has been out of work for three years discusses his frustrations.

"I was very, very shocked. You wouldn't think that having a job for 17 years that you'd be looking at something like this." The 43-year-old father of two children, including a daughter approaching college age, is now deeply concerned about his future. 

"I don't know how I'm going to make it. I don't know how I'm going to make my mortgage, how I'm going to make all those bills." 

He has told his kids that everything will be fine, but isn't certain about how they really feel about it. "I don't know if they understand," he said. "Sure they know what's happening, but I don't think the actual ramifications have set in yet."

Crowded jobs fair
In Southaven, Miss., more than 800 miles from the gridlock on Capitol Hill, an employment fair this week drew more than 2,500 people seeking the approximately 500 jobs being offered by local employers.

Among the many faces in the long lines was that of Glyn Jenkins, who had lost her job at a mental health facility. "You just don't know which way to turn and it's hard to get support, because there are so many people out there in the same boat."

Charles Kimler, who is in his 50s, came to the job fair wearing a suit, hoping to find work after losing his job of 30 years in the service industry. His girlfriend helps him as much as she can, but Kimler said he still can't pay all his bills now. 

Mark Potter / NBC News

Glyn Jenkins, who lost her job at a mental facility, recently visited a job fair, along with 2,500 other people, in Southhaven, Miss.

"I'm basically broke," he said. "I don't sleep at night, you know, it's just a constant strain on my emotions and my psyche and everything else."

Another job seeker, Patricia Allen, used to own a small house cleaning business until it folded during the economic downturn. She is frustrated by going on job interviews but never getting a call back. And she is angry with America's political leaders. 

"They are out of touch in Washington, they're definitely out of touch," she said. "When election time comes they talk about what they're going to do, and when you put them in office they don't live up to their words."