Congress must not abandon job seekers

Dec 11, 2013

For all the progress the American economy has made since its near collapse, today it employs 1.3 million fewer people than it did at the start of the recession. The depth of the economic hole we found ourselves in was so severe that the jobs deficit today – six years later – is almost on par with the deepest point of the early 1990s recession.

Yet at the end of December, without action, 1.3 million Americans – including 39,000 Ohioans – will immediately lose all of their unemployment insurance as the emergency federal program expires. There will be no merry or happy in their holiday season, only doubt and despair. We can easily avoid sending these families an empty box for Christmas if every Member of Congress follows three simple steps.

First, talk to the unemployed. It doesn’t take long to figure out that they represent every walk of life, that they are desperately seeking new work, and that cutting off their unemployment insurance would turn hardship into destitution. When I spend time with unemployed workers in Michigan, I am struck by the depth of their feeling that they played by the rules their whole lives, they value work and want more than anything to return to it, and believe that unemployment insurance is our society’s pact with each other during tough economic times. I am convinced that if the unemployed came to Washington and stood on the steps of the Capitol – if Congress heard their stories – the program would be extended.

Second, review the state of the economy. It’s true we have made clear progress since the darkest days of the Great Recession. But even at the current pace of job growth, it will take well into 2014 before the economy regains all of the jobs lost during the recession. That’s longer than it took to recover from the recessions at the start of the 1980s and 1990s – combined. It is the current jobs deficit that is maintaining near-record levels of long-term unemployment, with 36 percent of the unemployed without work for more than six months.

And third, consider the devastating effects of inaction. If Congress fails to extend the federal UI program, not only will well over one million Americans have their unemployment benefits completely cut off a few days after Christmas, but close to another two million will lose their benefits during the first half of next year. That includes tens of thousands of veterans who have recently left the military but who are still looking for work. And let’s not forget that the parents of millions of children receive unemployment insurance, with close to half a million children lifted out of poverty last year through all UI benefits.

The federal unemployment program currently provides 37 weeks of coverage in Ohio, on top of the 26 weeks the state provides. That’s higher than the national average. Ending it will not only deal a severe blow to already struggling families, it also will hurt our economic recovery. Economists, Wall Street analysts and even the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office have all estimated that the program’s termination would reduce growth and cost our economy hundreds of thousands of jobs, including more than 6,000 in Ohio. The reason is simple: The unemployed quickly spend their benefits on goods and services, which encourages businesses to hire more workers. Cutting off unemployment benefits therefore hits dislocated workers with a one-two punch – eliminating their assistance as they look for work, while also making it even harder to find a new job.

Congress must not lurch from shutting down the government to shutting out the unemployed. There is simply too much at stake. The financial security of millions of Americans, the strength of our economy, and proof that the people’s government still cares about job seekers all hang in the balance. Congress must act now.

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