Counting down

February 12, 2004

JUST A few years ago, experienced computer engineers such as Jim Snee could pretty much write their own ticket. But the 57-year-old Montgomery County resident, recently laid off from an $80,000-a-year job running e-mail systems at Dulles and National airports, now draws a $310-a-week state unemployment check.

Last weekend, President Bush offered Mr. Snee and the nation's other 8.3 million officially unemployed a big, hope-filled number, predicting the American economy would create 2.6 million jobs this year. That would be great for the country and for the president, since it would bring his jobs tally - 2.2 million lost so far - back to square one.

Trouble is, most economists scoff at Mr. Bush's prediction, politely stopping just short of calling it a fantasy. Even with corporate profits in healthy recovery, the United States lost 53,000 jobs last year and has gained only 375,000 jobs since September. We think the president's bold forecast is useful, nonetheless, if only as a key benchmark for American voters this fall.

In the meantime, here's another big number, one much more certain: In the first half of this year, a record 2 million Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits.

This comes as Congress and the administration late last year opted not to offer for a third time federal benefits after the unemployed exhaust their typical 26 weeks of state benefits. Virtually all recipients of unemployment whose state benefits end after Dec. 21 of last year won't receive an extension. In just the last six weeks, state benefits for about 500,000 unemployed already have expired with no federal help.

Last week, the House, with 39 Republicans joining Democrats, approved another 26 weeks of federal benefits, but didn't fund them. This ball isn't going to get through Congress without support from Mr. Bush. But he essentially has been silent.

One good reason not to extend federal benefits is that they would cost about $1 billion a month. But over six months, that tab would be one-fortieth the cost this year of Mr. Bush's record tax cuts largely for the affluent.

The extended benefits also would be a relatively good investment. A study by the consultant Economy.com found that every $1 of such benefits sends $1.73 through the economy - a bigger multiplier than other federal stimuli, including tax cuts.

Federal benefits are particularly needed now because an unusually large gap has opened between sluggish job growth and an otherwise recovering economy. Right now, the average duration of unemployment is up to almost 20 weeks, and almost 23 percent of those out of work have been so for at least six months. This would be the first time in 50 years that that percentage has reached that high without additional federal benefits in place.

Mr. Snee figures it's going to take almost all of his 26 weeks of Maryland benefits to land a job. He's been here before. In the recession of the early 1990s, he received 26 weeks of state benefits plus 26 weeks of federal benefits. But that, Mr. Snee is quick to note, "was under the first Mr. Bush."

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