Congress has gone home of the holidays, each member taking his or her $174,000 salary, full health care benefits, full travel benefits, and a host of other benefits with them as they enjoy their time off with their families. They didn’t solve the so-called “fiscal cliff” problem, largely because Tea Party die-hards in the U.S. House are unwilling to compromise on raising taxes even for those making $1 million a year or more and even though President Obama, who by the way won the election, has been willing to compromise on his proposals. So unless the President and Congress can reach a deal by Dec. 31, all of us will pay higher taxes at the same time significant cuts will be made to social programs and defense spending. It’s a lose-lose situation that can be avoided.
But there’s another cliff looming that will have even more dramatic impact on those least able to weather the coming financial storm. It’s been dubbed the “human cliff” and, as described by Strib staff writers Adam Belz and Steve Alexander (StarTribune Dec. 24: http://www.startribune.com/local/184634671.html?page=all&prepage=1&c=y#continue
) involves two million Americans, including about 12,000 Minnesotans, who will lose their unemployment benefits Dec. 29 unless Congress extends them. Another one million workers would lose their benefits in early 2013.
As anyone who has ever been on unemployment knows, these are basic benefits that help pay the rent or mortgage, help buy groceries and other essentials. Average benefits are about $300 a week, hardly an extravagance, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The Law Project has found that job loss often leads to increased credit card debt and loss of credit rating for the unemployed, making their transition back to work even more difficult.
Extending unemployment insurance for those who have been out of work for six months or longer would cost $30 billion. But that money would actually provide a stimulus to the economy because, economists point out, it would be spent quickly on rent, food, clothing and other items.
But more important, it is the moral thing to do. Unemployment, while falling, is still at 7.7 percent. A recent Congressional Research Service report says that unemployment insurance kept 2.3 million people above the poverty line, including 620,000 children, according to the New York Times.
As the National Employment Law Project argues: “The breadth and depth of the financial pain suffered by unemployed families as a result of the Great Recession cannot be overstated. Federal unemployment benefits provide a critical lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet, avoid falling deeper in debt, and get back on their feet working and supporting the economic recovery.”
As our Senators and Congress people enjoy the holidays with their families, they should consider that statement. They should consider how different their lives are this holiday season from the millions of unemployed Americans. They should consider the difference in the impact on the lives of the unemployed that extending unemployment insurance would mean vs. the impact of a slight increase in taxes on families making over $400,000 or $1 million a year. It is not a close call.
This is the richest country on earth. Don’t we owe the least fortunate among us, some consideration? These are our fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom want to work and support their families.
The political campaign just ended was all about jobs and the unemployed and how we were going to do everything we can to help them and help the country climb out of the recession. Extending unemployment insurance to the long-term unemployed has to be part of that effort. It’s the right thing to do.