There is an old saying that goes: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” America is a nation of creators, innovators and dreamers — hardworking men and women who do what it takes to live a better life. This is the history of our forefathers and brings with it the pride of our earned successes.
But freedom and prosperity require sacrifice, risk and action.
With Congress back in Washington, D.C., a conference committee will be tasked with negotiating another extension of unemployment benefits. When the current economic crisis first began in 2008, Congress voted to extend federally backed unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 99 weeks. This has continued as each deadline comes and goes with little to show for it. But as the economy continues to remain stagnant, we are left with the responsibility of asking, “where does this end?” and “what sort of precedents are we creating?”
As a conferee appointed to this committee, I am humbled by the historic challenges we face and what the legacy of our actions means for the future of our nation. Since the economic crisis began, the national unemployment rate has remained above 8 percent, a number that doesn’t factor in underemployment and the number of people who have stopped looking. These figures are clear evidence of a stagnant economy and economic policies that are only prolonging our problems, if not making them worse.
We have to make the distinction between who we are and what we want to be. As legislators, it is our duty to negotiate policies that will protect Americans and provide an environment where success can be earned. That is why we have and will continue to fight for meaningful reforms to unemployment insurance. But our focus will always be on re-employment.
Four years ago, the bow broke and our economy took a serious hit because of risky financial decisions with little focus on long-term growth and stability. Unemployment insurance became an important safety net to limit the damage while allowing people time to find work and help them survive. This was never intended to be a permanent solution and only distracts from the real goal of getting people back to work.
In order to sustain meaningful employment, we must work to foster policies that will ensure people not only get jobs, but succeed in them. This is where reforms to the current unemployment program can have the greatest effect.
The House-passed version of the measure would put in place firmer requirements to help job seekers do everything within their means to find employment. There are also incentives for people to enhance their skills and work toward obtaining their high school diploma or GED.
American taxpayers deserve to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely and appropriately, which is why we are incorporating provisions to ensure people who are receiving unemployment benefits are complying with the law. Because more and more employers are drug screening, and by allowing the states to screen the unemployed, our goal is to ensure that they would be employable when jobs are available. That is why we have incorporated a provision that allows the states to require drug screening for people receiving unemployment benefits.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.