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Last December, House and Senate Republicans uniformly said they would not consider an unemployment insurance extension unless there was a bipartisan compromise that was fully paid for, contained some unspecified reforms to the program and created jobs. In early April, after three months of negotiations and numerous false starts, they got just that: The Senate finally approved a bipartisan bill that met every one of those demands, while paying benefits through the end of May.
At that point, more than 2 million long-term unemployed workers and their families had reason to hope: An end to the stalemate that had wreaked havoc on their lives for the past three months was on the horizon. Yet nearly two months later, Speaker John A. Boehner and the House Republican leadership still refuse to put the bill on the House floor, because they know full well that there are more than enough votes to pass it.
Time has now run out, though, on the Senate-passed bill. The May 31 expiration of the five-month compromise extension has now passed, and instead of having allowed a vote, members of the House headed home on yet another recess, leaving nearly 3 million long-term unemployed job-seekers, and tens of thousands more who join the ranks each week, without a lifeline to sustain their families while they look for work.
It’s become far too easy for people to shrug off this inactivity as congressional gridlock, but we should resist the urge to be so glib with the lives of those struggling just to get by. This is not some indeterminate “gridlock,” but rather a callous and calculated decision by House Republican leaders, who have long wanted federal unemployment insurance to disappear. They have put up one disingenuous argument after another to eliminate this modest yet vital aid to the long-term unemployed. In doing so, they have turned the policymaker’s adage “do no harm” into “do nothing” — with tragic consequences for millions of America’s long-term unemployed workers.
It is not too late to act to help the 3.5 million people who are among the long-term unemployed, not to mention those discouraged workers who, at least for the time being, have given up any hope of finding a job.
Throughout the Great Recession and much of the recovery, there was strong bipartisan support to continue the federal unemployment insurance program without requiring offsets, acknowledging that the current crisis of long-term unemployment was an unprecedented emergency that should be dealt with as such, and that unemployment insurance more than pays for itself when recipients spend the funds and stimulate the economy. Congress could easily act to restore federal UI benefits retroactive to their expiration on Dec. 29 and ensure that they remain up and running through the end of this calendar year.
Beyond that, Congress can and should act to fund direct job creation, targeting the continued crisis of long-term unemployment. Even a modest investment in subsidized jobs, which has bipartisan support in the states, could return hundreds of thousands of people to work. Just this month, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, for example, announced a program that would subsidize the wages of workers in private sector jobs, giving them the kind of “foot in the door” that often leads to permanent employment.
Congress could easily appropriate funds to each state for programs just like the one in Washington, aimed at the long-term unemployed who face such seemingly insurmountable obstacles to re-employment.
We could make a necessary investment in the public re-employment services that each state is supposed to offer as part of the regular UI program, but can barely afford to do so as the result of years of funding neglect from Congress. While we work on one end to return the long-term unemployed to jobs, we can work on the other end to make sure that people don’t cross that six-month line and become long-term unemployed.
The job-creation solutions are fairly obvious, including investments in infrastructure repairs and public employment. It is high time for Congress to have the will to really tackle long-term unemployment, help people get back to work, and restore unemployment insurance benefits to the long-term unemployed.
Judy Conti is the federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.