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Those who are out of work need a way to sustain themselves and their families, and communities hit hard by the nation’s jobs crisis need a boost to local spending power. Unemployment benefits help meet both of those needs. In times of high unemployment, the 26 weeks of benefits that state unemployment insurance (UI) programs typically provide are woefully inadequate. That is certainly true today: At the end of 2011, the number of unemployed job seekers exceeded the number of job openings by more than 4-1, and more than 40 percent of the unemployed had been looking for a job for 27 weeks or more.
In every major recession since the 1950s, Congress has recognized the need to supplement state UI benefits by providing additional weeks of assistance. It is also noteworthy that since the 1950s, these extended benefits have never been discontinued when the unemployment rate was over 7.2 percent. This Congress, in which the House of Representatives is dominated by a far right majority, has taken a different approach. Despite an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent nationally (much higher in many especially hard-hit states and communities), the House was prepared to let extended benefits expire at the end of the year. Only a public outcry over the expiration the payroll tax holiday (with which the UI extension was coupled) forced them to reconsider and agree to a two-month extension.
That means the long-term unemployed are still threatened with the loss of benefits, beginning in March. House Republicans are using this threat to try to force draconian, mean-spirited changes in the nation’s safety net for the unemployed. Their proposals include drug tests for all UI applicants, the denial of benefits to unemployed workers who lack a high school diploma or GED, imposing a new tax on the unemployed to pay for re-employment services, and imposing burdensome administrative requirements on states while simultaneously giving them more flexibility to cut benefits.
We strongly oppose such attacks on the unemployed, and strongly support the continuation of the Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program and the Extended Benefit (EB) program. Together, these two programs provide as much as 73 weeks of additional unemployment benefits, depending on a state’s unemployment rate. With the regular 26 weeks that states generally provide to unemployed individuals, the additional 73 weeks help those out of work by providing up to 99 total weeks of benefits.
Letting emergency federal benefits expire now would be unprecedented and could derail the economic recovery we have seen over the past several months. If Congress does not extend these federal programs by late February, all federal UI benefits will end. Most of the hundreds of thousands of workers who exhaust their regular state benefits each month would receive no further help. The administration estimates that more than five million individuals would lose benefits over the course of 2012. Failure to extend the federal unemployment programs would mean less spending by unemployed workers and their families, which would hurt sales at local businesses and undermine job creation in an already weak recovery. Effective temporary stimulus measures such as emergency UI benefits can give the economic recovery a much-needed boost and reduce the risk of sliding back into recession.