Once again the Senate has failed to extend unemployment benefits for a meager three months for 1.7 million long-term unemployed Americans, who since the end of December have been without any financial help from the richest country in the world.
The Democratic majority in the Senate, along with four Republicans, late last week came one vote short of breaking a Republican filibuster to move the extension to a vote. (Even if the bill passed the Senate, there was no guarantee it would have passed the House.)
President Obama and others have pushed for a year’s extension so the three-month program at $6 billion was a major concession and Senate Democrats had agreed to pay for the benefits in the budget. There was the usual procedural wrangling over when the Republicans could offer amendments.
But the bottom line is this: those 1.7 million of our fellow citizens, some of whom have been out of work for months, need that $300 per week benefit to pay for basic food and rent while they continue to seek employment. It provides basic support as we recover from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Nearly four million people have been unemployed for longer than six months.
Listen to Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a non-partisan nonprofit that does research and advocates for the unemployed:
“It is disgraceful that once again, a minority of senators—all Republicans—have filibustered a vote on extending federal unemployment insurance for nearly 1.7 million long-term unemployed workers struggling to get by in this harsh winter without a vital lifeline of support….
“Most Americans believe that one of the most important roles of government is to help provide for us when, through no fault of our own, we fall on hard times and need modest support to stay afloat. A minority of senators apparently don’t share that value.”
In one of the best recent stories on the plight of the long-term unemployed, Brad Plumer of the Washington Post explains that while unemployment has improved since the worst days of the recession, the long-term rate is “still as high as it’s been since World War II.” And the unemployed include young workers, older workers, college-educated workers and married workers with kids, he points out.
We all know them. They are our neighbors and friends. In recent weeks, I’ve run into three people I know, all of whom had decent professional jobs, who are now working at coffee shops and pizza places trying to make ends meet.
Furthermore, according to Plumer, the longer you are out of a job, the harder it is to find one. If you are out of work six months, you only have a 12 percent chance of finding a new job in a given month. And, not surprisingly, long-term unemployed workers tend to have more health problems and strained family relationships. If the benefits are not extended by Congress, nearly 5 million people will lose their current benefits by the end of the year before they find a new job, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul, have argued that extending unemployment benefits becomes a disincentive to finding work. As someone who has been unemployed, I find that sentiment rather preposterous as though a family of four can live on $300 or so per week. That barely buys groceries. It can’t do that and pay the mortgage or rent as well while the jobless person continues his or her search.
And Plumer cites research that debunks Paul’s sentiments: “There’s scant evidence that the long-term unemployed will find it easier to get jobs if their benefits are cut off. For starters, there still aren’t enough jobs to go around: There are currently about 2.9 unemployed workers for every job opening. That’s worse than the ratio at any point during the 2001 recession.”
Extending the benefits also makes economic sense because the money will be spent and recirculated in the economy. And, as Plumer also notes, this persistent long-term unemployment is hurting the economy. Helping unemployed workers with benefits and more job training will not only help them, but in the end help the economy.
But at its core, extending the benefits to the long-term unemployed is about helping our fellow citizens in a time of need. It’s simply the right thing to do.