Hot Dish Politics: Awaiting word on jobless benefits

  • Updated: January 25, 2014 - 5:13 PM
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President Obama, shown during his 2013 State of the Union address. This year, Obama will home in on income inequality.

Photo: Charles Dharapak • Associated Press file,

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COREY MITCHELL

– Since Ann Watanabe lost her job as a corporate recruiter last spring, she has applied for 200 jobs and landed only two interviews.

The University of Minnesota graduate is among the 1.3 million Americans who lost access to federal jobless benefits in late December.

In the weeks since, Watanabe has fretted about her financial future.

Efforts to reach a bipartisan deal extending benefits for the long-term unemployed collapsed in the Senate this month, but Democratic efforts to revive the program may get a boost this week from President Obama.

Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday will home in on the message of income inequality that his administration rolled out in recent weeks.

The president will focus on pocketbook issues such as extending the unemployment benefits, college affordability, workplace leave policies and an initiative that would boost the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

An estimated 14,000 Minnesotans have lost jobless benefits since the end of December. Without congressional action, the White House says the aid for 57,000 more could expire in 2014.

The benefits provide up to an additional 47 weeks of checks for the long-term unemployed after their 26 weeks of state benefits run out.

“I never thought I would be unemployed for this long,” said Watanabe, 45, who lives in Eden Prairie with her husband and children, ages 9 and 3. “I was far too confident that something would come along.”

The view from Congress

Watanabe has become a face of the debate in Congress. U.S. Sen. Al Franken mentioned her in a Senate speech this month.

Democrats view the jobless benefits as an emergency measure that can be financed with deficit spending. Republicans insist on pairing any renewal with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a report this month making the Democrats’ case for extending the benefits. An extension would help the economy by “helping families stay afloat while they look for work,” said Klobuchar, vice chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.

On Friday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison visited Summit Academy, a vocational training center in north Minneapolis, to stump on the issue.

The Republicans in Minnesota’s congressional delegation have been largely silent on the topic. U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen did not respond to requests for comment.

Bounce back not universal

The Capitol Hill debate highlights more than just the deep ideological differences between the two parties. To some extent, it also illustrates how different parts of the country are faring economically after the Great Recession.

The national unemployment rate has dipped slightly below 7 percent, but some states’ rates are significantly higher than that and some much lower.

At 4.6 percent, Minnesota’s is well below the national average, yet many residents still haven’t bounced back from the depths of the recession.

Robin Pollard of Burnsville is among them.

Pollard has been out of work since January 2013 after losing her $20-per-hour job as a Scott County administrative assistant. Despite applying for 120 jobs in the past year, she’s drawn almost no interest from potential employers. She shared her story during a roundtable discussion that Franken held in Minnesota this month.

With the clock ticking on mortgage forbearance assistance that lowers her monthly payments, Pollard has resorted to raiding her retirement accounts to keep her Burnsville townhouse.

“Since our fate lies in the hands of certain politicians, my recommendation would be that no one [in Congress] receives one penny of their salary until the bickering stops and the issue is resolved,” Pollard said. “This certainly would be a great motivator for them to do what’s right, in a timely manner.”

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