As the holiday season approaches, it's Grinch time for unemployed workers and their families.
In votes this year, congressional Republicans were almost unanimous in their opposition to extending unemployment benefits; Democrats almost unanimous in their support. The outcome of the election November 2 will determine congressional response to two threats faced by unemployed workers.
The first threat is fate of the 99ers. These are unemployed workers who have exhausted their 26 weeks of regular Unemployment Insurance benefits, 34 to 50 weeks of Emergency Unemployment Compensation and 13 to 20 weeks of Extended Benefits - a total of, at most, 99 weeks of benefits.
In the twelve months through August this year, at least 1.4 million people have exhausted all benefits, with another million likely to join them by year's end, and more to come. The months with the highest number of layoffs were December, 2008, through June, 2009. Those workers are just starting to reach their 99-week limit, and will be exhausting their benefits over the next six months.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, whose state of Michigan has the second highest unemployment rates, introduced legislation for additional 20 weeks of EUB for the 99ers. It was blocked by Republican Senator George LeMieux.
It is not only the 99ers who are in trouble. Any benefits beyond 26 weeks have to be approved by Congress in times of high unemployment. The EUC and EB programs were expanded and funded by the Stimulus Bill (ARRA) passed in February, 2009, but funding was only provided for a year. For 51 days this summer, Republicans were able to block renewal in the Senate, cutting off aid to 2.5 million families. Finally, the EUC/EB renewal passed (though almost all Republicans still voted against it). The price for the few swing votes included a cut of $25 per week in jobless benefits and elimination of COBRA subsidies that provided health coverage to as many as 2 million families.
Now, the 5.5 million families depending on EUC/EB benefits face a new crisis, along with many of the 4.5 million collecting regular UI who are approaching the end of their six-month eligibility. The EUC/EB program was only extended until November 30, and Congress will only be in session for a few days after the election. If it does not act, 1.2 million workers (in addition to the 99ers) will be cut off from benefits during the holiday season. By April of next year, about 5 million workers who would otherwise be eligible for EUC/EB will be cut off.
The hungry dog hunts harder
When Republican Senators held up renewal of EUC/EB earlier this year, temporarily suspending payments and throwing millions of families into crisis, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "Continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."
Tom Corbett, Republican candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania, stated, "People don't want to come back to work while they still have unemployment [benefits]... If we keep extending unemployment the people are going to sit there."
The champion of heartlessness might well be Republican Sharron Angle, in a tight race for the Nevada Senate seat. Her state is suffering the highest unemployment in the country, at 14.4 percent. Explaining why she opposed extended benefits, Angle said, "You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that's an honest job but doesn't pay enough. In a radio interview, she said, "We've put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry."
Glenn Beck, de facto spokesman for much of the Republican Party, said that 99ers should be ashamed to call themselves Americans. "Go out and get a job," said the multi-millionaire. "You may not want the job. Work at McDonald's. Work two jobs."
Average unemployment benefits are less than $300 per week, and at best are half of a worker's wage. With most families barely getting by even when they are working, calling half-pay a "disincentive" to work is a cruel joke. The joke is even bitterer in states like Sharon Angle's Nevada, which have far more than the national average of five job-seekers for every opening.
Meager as benefits are, they kept 3.3 million people above the poverty line in 2009. And the $78 billion in extra benefits went to support local neighborhoods and local economies. Because of these benefits, families were able to keep their homes, pay local taxes and shop at local stores. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, of all federal spending, unemployment compensation provides the most economic benefit because it is immediately spent in the economy.
To anyone who has been out of work in hard times, Sharon Angle, Glenn Beck and the rest of the Republican crew may sound clueless. But they are not. Read what they say again. Sharon Angle says to take a job that doesn't pay enough to live on. Glenn Beck says, work two jobs. They want working people to be so desperate they'll work for minimum wage and less. They want older workers to compete with their children and grandchildren for fast-food and low-wage retail jobs.
At the start of the Great Depression of the 1930s, employers repeatedly cut wages of the workers who were lucky enough to have jobs. It took a while, but the workers organized, formed unions, fought back, and laid the basis for three decades of rising living standards. The same formula - unite, organize, fight back - can win in this crisis, starting with election day November 2.