The U.S. Senate on Tuesday (July 20) will once again take up the issue of extending unemployment benefits for millions of unemployed workers in the worst recession in 50 years. Through the Senate’s inaction, mostly the result of Republican opposition, more than two million workers have exhausted their benefits since May and thousands more run out each week.

With 14 million unemployed, almost half of them for more than six months, it seems unconscionable for the Senate not to pass this minimal help for their fellow Americans who are struggling to get by.

The main Republican argument is that they are mostly for extending benefits if the Democrats don’t add to the deficit to pay for the extension. But in the past the Republicans have done the same thing. The law allows emergency deficit spending. It’s nice that the Republicans have found so much religion on the deficit. Such spending, however, did not seem to bother them when paying for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, extension of the Medicare drug benefit and two wars.

But the argument opposing extension of benefits that bothers me the most is the one put forth recently by Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona who said: “That doesn't create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work. I'm sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can't argue that it's a job enhancer. If anything, as I said, it's a disincentive.”

It’s insulting to those millions of people who have been laid off or otherwise lost jobs in this economy and simply cannot find a new one. As someone who has twice been on unemployment in my 40-year career, I can guarantee that the weekly check does not make you think you should just sit back and forget about looking for a new gig. Most people get $200 or $300 per week, some as much as $500. Can a family of four live on that? Can you make car payments, pay the mortgage or put fancy food on the table with that? Of course not.

Kyl and his colleagues who agree with him or who oppose extension for other reasons should try to live on unemployment checks for a few weeks. Senators make $175,000 per year, have large staffs in Washington and in their home states, have the best health insurance and a variety of other perks. To make value judgments about people out of work is demeaning and out of touch. As the nation’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate shows, there are too few jobs out there, particularly for workers over 50.

Most economists agree that unemployment benefits are not only helpful to unemployed people, but provide a short-term stimulus to the economy because the money is spent on food, rent,  mortgages and in stores.  

And while the Republicans are banking on the deficit issue to help them win seats this fall, two recent polls show that most Americans think that extending unemployment benefits is the right thing to do. A CBS New poll found that 52 percent of the respondents said the benefits should be extended vs. 39 percent who disagreed. An ABC News/Washington Post survey found 62 percent favored extension vs. 36 percent opposed.

The Senate should do what is needed to help America’s unemployed get back on their feet and back to work. To make people who have already suffered enough in this recession wait longer for minimal help borders on the immoral.


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