The U.S. Congress that convened for its limited “lame duck” session this week has a lot on its plate; it will act – or not act – on some of the pressing issues facing the nation, wrap up its business and go home for the holidays. From then until the new Congress convenes in January there will be a lot of occasions when the members will have their actual china plates piled high. But for a lot of people the holiday fare will be skimpier than it has been for quite a while – especially the nearly 15 million people out of work.
If Congress does not vote over the next week and a half to re-authorize federal unemployment benefits through next year, before they expire November 30, nearly 2 million women and men and their families will face a dismal holiday season. One estimate is that the number could reach 4 million by May with the current emergency benefits program having expired and the additional workers left unaided. It’s hard to imagine anything more urgent than this.
The workers who will be affected by the extension are those who recently lost their jobs. It would make it possible for them to receive the same number of weeks of benefits as those who previously lost their jobs due to the recession. The 2 million figure does not include those people who have exhausted their jobless benefits and will be on the streets with little or no income at all. Nor does it include the young people entering the job market for the first time.
According to Unemployed Workers.org, “These benefits have helped keep more than 9 million jobless workers and their families going this year alone, while they look for work in a tough economy. More than 5 million Americans who have been struggling to find jobs for six months or more currently rely on these federal unemployment benefits. Combined with state benefits, the expanded federal unemployment programs kept an estimated 3.3 million Americans out of poverty in 2009.”
“Never before has Congress allowed extended unemployment insurance to lapse when the national unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent,” says Jackie Headapohl of Michigan Job Search at mlive.com. “We’ll find out later this month if the lame duck Congress will continue that tradition.”
“It is hard to imagine that Congress could deny help to out-of-work Americans, except that is exactly what happened this summer when federal benefits lapsed for 51 days, cutting off 2.5 million people. Senate Republicans and a few Democrats insisted that reducing the deficit was more important,” the New York Times said editorially last week. “That did not stop many of the same senators from preserving tax loopholes for certain wealthy money managers.”
Congress’ failure to pass an extension this summer took a toll in terms of peoples’ lives in ways that are seldom chronicled in the major mass media. “I’d been submitting 20 to 30 job applications a week, and finally I got a job,” says Lori Hancock, a 52-year-old woman in Weldon, Ill. who lost her job last November. “But, after working for only 2 weeks, my car was repossessed, and without any transportation to get to work, I lost that new job,” Writing to wwww.unemployedworkers.org, a website by the National Employment Law Project, she said, “If Congress hadn’t let those benefits lapse last summer, I’d still have my car and my new job. Now I have neither. What happened to me could happen to almost anybody.”
“Deficits matter,’ the Times editorial continued, “but not more than a recovery (benefits are a powerful stimulus) or the economic survival of millions of Americans. Short-term extensions breed uncertainty and anxiety, which are also bad for the economy. The best thing this lame duck Congress can do is extend the benefits for 12 months, with the expectation that things will be better by the end of next year.”
“Creating jobs remains the biggest challenge to the American economy,” says Michael J. Wilson, national director of Americans for Democratic Action. “The case for public investment seems to have fallen by the wayside in the face of short-term political considerations.” He spoke of “the obvious need for the Congress to extend unemployment benefits this month as a “failure to do so will not only devastate tens of thousands of families, but will have a direct impact on the holiday season. We can only hope that Congress does the right thing in the extended session.”
While the September jobless figures provided what some have called a glimmer of bright light, the employment depression shows no sign of abating. As economist Paul Krugman put it: the “slump goes on and on.”
According to the government, job openings, or listings, decreased by 163,000 in September and there were 109,000 fewer jobs listed in August than previously reported. There were 2.9 million job openings in September, while the total number of unemployed workers was 14.8 million, half of whom have been jobless for 21 weeks or more.
President Obama’s welcome announcement that his trip to India produced economic agreements that will theoretically result in 54,000 new jobs should be seen in context. Last month, the U.S. economy created 151,000 new jobs and the unemployment rate remained at a stubborn 9.6 percent.
Congressional Republicans and a few Democrats (fortunately, half of the latter lost their jobs in the last election) are threatening to stick it to the unemployed again. Once again they are demanding the White House cut other vital social programs in return for not killing the extension. Once again, some of them are trotting out the demagogic argument that unemployment insurance discourages people from seeking work.
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said one of her top priorities during the lame duck session will be to reauthorize unemployment insurance. However, even with Democratic majority in both houses, passing the measure is uncertain given Republican opposition in the Senate. Even more ominously, when the Republicans take over the House it will probably mark the end of any extensions, despite the fact that joblessness it expect to remain high or even grow in 2011.
Jamelle Bouie at American Prospect magazine takes a dim view of the prospects. “Reauthorization should be a no-brainer in a recession with near double-digit unemployment. But this isn’t a sane country, and Republicans have already held up the extension of joblessness benefits on two separate occasions,” he wrote on the magazine’s web page. “And despite the importance of extending such support to help families and improve the economy, there is no guarantee that Democrats will find enough votes from the GOP – or within their own caucus – to break a likely filibuster.”
“The people who are advocating an end to extending unemployment benefits must be getting different data than everyone else,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “The economy is, at best, barely creating jobs at a fast enough rate to keep the unemployment rate from rising. All the projections show the unemployment rate will be much higher over the next year than it was when we originally extended benefits. It is hard to see what the rationale would be for ending extended benefits.”
“Fiscal watchdogs object to spending billions more on payouts, adding to the mountainous federal debt,” wrote staff writer Jeff Harrington in the Times November 6. “They cite studies that indicate extending benefits actually lengthens the period of time people remain unemployed.
“Republican leaders, emboldened by their renewed legislative clout, have told Democrats they’ll have to cut up to $14 billion from government programs to extend emergency unemployment benefits through Christmas.”
“These are scary times,” says activist Kian Frederick. “It’s getting very difficult and there is a lot of hardship out there. People are losing their homes; their children are being placed in foster care. And all the while people are trying to blame the victims rather than face up to the problem.”
Frederick is director of Flasmob4Jobs. Com, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of the estimated 4.5 million “99ers,” workers who have already exhausted their 99 weeks of benefits. The group is calling on Congress to pass Senate bill 3706 which would add 20 additional weeks (Tier V) of benefits for those who were laid off early in the recession and ceased receiving assistance in the spring and for those who will do so in the future. The proposed legislation’s tile is the Americans Want to Work Act.
“This is a stand-alone measure,” Frederick told me. “And like the proposal to extend assistance to those whose benefits are about to run out, it is a band-aid. What we really need is a jobs program. People want to work.”
Last Friday, members of the group demonstrated outside the Manhattan office of the Department of Labor where some engaged in civil disobedience. “We’re trying to send a message; people have to stand up and be heard,” says Frederick.
Last Wednesday, about a dozen Ohioans protested outside the Troy office of incoming Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday. They delivered thousands of petitions urging Congress to concentrate on job creation. The demonstration was organized by Working America, the community-organizing affiliate of the AFL-CIO. One of the picketers, Marvin Bohn said, “Unemployment benefits paid for the gas I needed to look for work when I was laid off, and they put money into our communities that supports businesses and creates jobs. On the other hand, if that money goes to Boehner’s wealthy donors, it will simply go into buying even more political attack ads in two years, not creating jobs.”
“Boehner, don’t do us wrong, stop stringing us along,” the demonstrators chanted.