Federal Jobless Assistance Threatened

President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, again reminded the nation why we need bold investments in the economy to lift millions of Americans out of poverty, out of unemployment and toward a future where all have enough to thrive.

Since December 2010, Congress has done little but pander to the interests of the top 1%, entertaining proposal after proposal that would put all sacrifices on the backs of working families. The President should be congratulated for standing up to the plans of the GOP to lead Congress to slash essential programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. 

The economic crisis, started by big banks and corporations greedy for more profits, has led to the financial ruin of countless Americans. Corporations have remained profitable in this crisis by downsizing, at the expense of countless workers, or by sending jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. Lost jobs have meant lost revenue for local governments, which has translated to lost essential services. Corporate greed has reduced the American dream to a hollow nightmare for many of the 99%.

Congress should heed the call of President Obama and act courageously to help ordinary people get back on their feet and give them a reason to believe that they will have a secure retirement after years of hard work. An America sacrificing the interests of the 99% in favor of discredited policies that benefit only the wealthy is an America on the wrong track.    

Congress can start by extending unemployment benefits.  At the end of February, millions of unemployed Americans will begin to lose federal unemployment insurance benefits unless Congress acts.  The net result would not just be a threat to the individuals involved, but also to the nation’s economy. UI benefits are immediately stimulative. Failure to extend them will cost the nation hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity.

Even so, the primary threat is not inaction by Congress; most agree that UI benefits will be extended in some form. The threat, rather, is that Congress will drastically slash federal benefits and take a system philosophically based on no-fault insurance and turn it into a punitive, repressive program that erects harmful new barriers to UI benefits for ordinary hardworking Americans.

House Republicans are pushing for drastic cuts and harsh restrictions to the unemployment insurance of millions of jobless workers. They would slash unemployment benefits and put nearly 3 million Americans and our economy at risk.  Congress must renew unemployment insurance through 2012 with no cuts, no hoops, no barriers. 

Congress narrowly avoided cutting off unemployment insurance to millions of jobless workers when it agreed to a two-month extension just before the holidays. But that extension will expire at the end of February, so Congress needs to fully renew unemployment insurance through 2012.

Some of the GOP’s proposed barriers to benefits:

• Allow mandatory drug testing of unemployment insurance claimants, stigmatizing jobless workers. There is no reasonable basis to subject the unemployed to a drug testing requirement, and proponents of this proposal cite no data or verifiable evidence showing any need for such testing. While it may make for a good sound bite in certain circles, it is, in reality, a not-so-subtle attack on the character of unemployed Americans. This over-reach seems rooted in a blanket assumption that unemployed workers are to blame for their own unemployment and that the ranks of the unemployed are crowded with lazy drug abusers.

• Make jobless workers pay for their reemployment services.  Conservatives in Congress have proposed allowing states to deduct $5 per week from recipients’ UI benefits to fund re-employment services. These services have always been financed by the taxes paid into the UI program, which jobless Americans already paid – sometimes for decades.

• Deny benefits to those not fortunate to finish high school or obtain a GED.  Conservatives would require, for the first time ever, that as an eligibility requirement all UI recipients have a high school degree or general educational development (GED) degree, or be making sufficient progress toward a degree. Virtually every state in the U.S. has a waiting list for adult education, and adult education programs have themselves been cut, both by Congress and by the states.

Government needs to spur the economy and keep it growing. Maintaining the unemployment insurance program does that.  Jobless benefits go straight back into the economy—they support local businesses, help create jobs, reduce the demand for public services and cost taxpayers less in the long run.