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The eight-million-piece puzzle | EPI Viewpoints

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The eight-million-piece puzzle

Inaction by Congress on extending unemployment benefits could leave the nation’s eight million jobless in danger.

by Ross Eisenbrey

In an election year it’s hard to imagine why either party would write off 8 million Americans. That’s more than the population of any one of 39 states, more than the labor force of any single state other than California, Texas or New York.

Eight million is the number of Americans who are currently unemployed. Over half a million of them are in New York State. Ss strange as it seems, Congress is getting ready to adjourn without even-debating the expiration of the extended unemployment benefits program. The House leadership has seemed oblivious to the problems of the unemployed, and a discharge petition to force a bill to the floor has failed for lack of signatures. Attempts to bring up the matter in the Senate have been blocked repeatedly. Meanwhile, pre-election gridlock threatens to leave the victims cast overboard by the recession without a lifeline in a stormy economy. If Congress and the president do not act, workers now receiving extended benefits will be completely cut off on Dec. 28.

Last March, when the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent and the economy appeared to be picking up steam, Congress and President Bush agreed to give most of the long-term jobless 13 more weeks of benefits, beyond the usual 26 weeks provided by state programs. Those extended benefits have helped 2 million families pay the rent and put food on the table.

Since March, however, the recovery has stalled, and allowing benefits to expire after only nine months is clearly a mistake. With unemployment still at 5.6 percent and job growth stagnant, the number of long-term unemployed is rising.

For those who are out of work, the hill they must climb has gotten even steeper, as more unemployed chase fewer jobs. At the end of 2000, there were about 1.3 unemployed workers for each job available. Today 8 million unemployed are competing for just 3.5 million openings — a ratio of 2.3 job seekers for every job.

These millions of Americans are out of work through no fault of their own. Whether because of 9/11, corporate scandals or the bursting of the technology bubble, there simply aren’t enough jobs out there, no matter how hard the jobless work to find them. They need help, and they need it now.

The president’s economic advisers claim a recovery is under way and urge confidence in the economy. But almost every economic forecaster, from the Congressional Budget Office to Wall Street, expects unemployment to rise further and remain high until at least mid-2003.

Even barring oil price shocks caused by war with Iraq, the economy is not expected to create enough jobs to reduce unemployment significantly. Every week, 50,000 workers exhaust their unemployment benefits. Home mortgage foreclosures are at 30-year highs, and personal bankruptcies are at the highest levels ever recorded.

Yet the president has given no indication that the compassion he claims to have will lead him to support further help for the unemployed. The Senate’s leading Republican, Trent Lott, spoke out recently, but only to attack the unemployed, whom he claimed the government had helped enough.

When Sen. Paul Wellstone tried to bring up a bill to extend the program for six more months and increase the total weeks of benefits any individual could receive, his effort was blocked. Secretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans acknowledges the pain of the unemployed but proposes nothing to relieve it. His only “solution” for today’s unemployed is whatever might trickle down from permanent tax cuts that won’t even take effect for many years.

Facing a similar recession and jobless recovery, the first President Bush at first resisted, but then signed three extensions of unemployment benefits into law. By then, that Bush presidency had lost much of the luster it had gained through war leadership. One can only hope that this President Bush wakes up sooner to the economic damage being done to so many millions of willing but unlucky workers.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute.



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