AP National Writer
AURORA, Ill. (AP) -- Down the road from an emergency food pantry where a small crowd waits for the chance to gather free groceries, there is a church sign that reads: "If you need help, ask God. If you don't, thank God."
Debbie Jurcak, one of those in line, will tell you that it is indeed divine help -- or, anyway, faith-based organizations -- that she and her family have relied on in recent weeks. Late last month, the federal government ended her unemployment benefits, six months after she was laid off from an administrative job.
Having passed that six-month mark, she had joined the ranks of the "long-term unemployed," a growing group of more than 1.3 million Americans for whom Congress recently declined to extend benefits. It is a label that Jurcak, a former teacher with two master's degrees, never expected would apply to her.
"It's not something you want to go around talking about all the time. I think a lot of people don't share what the depth of their need is," the 43-year-old mother of three said, wiping tears from underneath her glasses as she waited for her turn at the West Suburban Community Pantry, outside Chicago.
"But ... there's no room for pride," she added, "because we all come to a point in our life -- whether it's financial reasons, or medical reasons, or mental health reasons, or whatever they are -- where you recognize your need for help."
Turns out, Jurcak is one of the lucky ones, or so she hopes. After months applying for jobs, she learned just days after her visit to the pantry, that she got a customer service job, which she starts this week. It's only temporary for now and the pay is modest. But if she proves herself, there's a good chance she'll be hired permanently, she said.
Her husband Frank is working for a temp agency, driving a forklift or delivering documents for $12 an hour. He, too, is awaiting word on a full-time job, his in law enforcement.
Permanent employment would mean major changes for this family and for their children, who were on the verge of eviction after Jurcak's benefits expired last month.
But many other American parents are still struggling to find work.
A recent report from the Urban Institute found that, in an average month, there are still three times as many children living with parents who've been out of work more than six months as there were in 2007, before the recession hit. And Illinois is among the states with the highest percentage of children in that predicament -- with nearly 5 percent of them living with parents who are long-term unemployed, according to the report.
Unemployment benefits are certainly not a cure-all, said Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, who co-authored the report. But they do help cushion the negative impact that unemployment, and resulting poverty, can have on outcomes such as school performance, she said.
For the Jurcaks, it's easy now to look back and see how they would have done things differently.
But Debbie Jurcak says there was no way of knowing how bad things would get after she left a teaching job in 2009 to spend time at home with her newborn daughter, Ella, who's now 4.
In the years that followed, Frank's assignments as a commercial diver at nuclear facilities began to dwindle. Two years ago, with bills mounting, they sold their four-bedroom home in a short sale and moved their kids to a new school district.
Eventually, Frank was permanently laid off, leading him to the temporary jobs while he looked for permanent work.
Debbie, meanwhile, had gotten the administrative job in the fall of 2012, but was laid off last May when her company had to cut back. While receiving unemployment benefits, she said she constantly sought work, reasoning: "My full-time job is finding a job and taking care of my kids."
Through it all, she and Frank have tried to shield their children as best they can -- not always successfully.
Though Ella still went to preschool, she often told her parents she missed her daycare friends. Sometimes, she'd bring out her piggy bank and announce, "I have money!"
The two older children, ages 13 and 16, have had an even greater sense of the growing desperation from their mom and from Frank, who is their stepdad.
"They definitely know we've been struggling," Debbie Jurcak said. She and Frank have tried to absorb as much of the negative impact as they can.