Extending unemployment

Our view: With so many Americans struggling to find work in a so-far lackluster economic recovery, Congress needs to get its act together and extend unemployment benefits now

July 12, 2010

The nation's jobless have rarely been treated so callously. As of today, another 3,500 unemployed Marylanders will see their benefits expire, bringing the total to nearly 12,000 in similar straits since Congress chose not to extend benefits last month. In all, nearly 2 million unemployed Americans have seen their benefits run out.

The public should be outraged by the Senate's failure to extend temporary jobless benefits. Unemployment is still hovering at 9.3 percent, and jobs are hard to find. And while it's entirely appropriate to discontinue such extensions after the job market has recovered, that moment hasn't happened yet. Historically, Congress has always chosen to end longer-term benefits only when the jobless rate falls several points lower than where it is today.

Republican opponents have produced a lot of misinformation about the unemployment insurance program. One of the bigger canards is that temporary benefits extensions are somehow delaying recovery — as if millions of Americans preferred to cash government checks for a fraction of their normal paycheck rather than work.

In Maryland, the average weekly benefit (before taxes) is $312. The most anyone can receive is $410. That's not an impetus to stay home, and it's often not even enough to afford basic needs such as housing and groceries.

The reality is that unemployment benefits are helping the U.S. economy, not hurting it, particularly in areas of economic distress. People spend this money — usually immediately and on necessities. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, earlier extensions of federal unemployment benefits added $819 million to Maryland's economy.

Most economists agree that a benefits extension provides an opportunity to boost the nation's overall economic output. Most voters support the program as well. A June survey by Hart Research Associates found 74 percent of Americans agree that it's too early in the recovery to cut back benefits for workers who have lost their jobs.

If the Senate does not act soon, a lot of families will suffer. And Congress will have to explain to the public this fall why it could find billions of dollars for Wall Street bailouts and economic stimulus programs but was unwilling to help those who find themselves without work through no fault of their own.

In normal times, the six months of jobless benefits that states offer the unemployed is enough to get most people back on their feet. But the country is suffering the worst economic recession since the Great Depression; these are not normal times.

And while it's all very well to be concerned about rising national debt, this is exactly the wrong place to draw the line. The Senate has from now until the Aug. 1 recess to get the job done. This isn't the time to score partisan points but to show some compassion for families that risk losing much more than elected office.

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