A critical part of the federal efforts to soften the 2008 recession’s blow was extending unemployment insurance benefits for those unable to find work after losing their jobs. That extension – which kicked in for up to 47 more weeks of coverage when state benefits expired after 14 weeks – has meant a critical difference between no paycheck and some income, however small, for 23.9 million out-of-work Americans since the program began in 2008. The long-term benefit expired in December, ending coverage for 1.3 million people at the end of 2013 and setting up another 3.6 million before 2014 closes. A Senate bill to extend the benefits is making some progress; it should be swiftly passed.
Unemployment benefits are an essential function on at least two levels: humanitarian and economic. When recession triggers workers to lose jobs through no fault of their own, and they are subsequently unable to find new employment, a multi-level crisis unfolds. At the personal level, savings are eventually exhausted, bills then outpace earnings and individuals and families face financial crises that can be averted – albeit only somewhat – with unemployment insurance while workers seek new jobs. With a federal unemployment rate of 7.3 percent – 6.8 percent in Colorado – there are too many such workers and their families struggling to meet basic, financial obligations. This creates a drag on the economy in terms of diminished gross domestic product. Unemployment insurance provides some counterweight at the personal and societal level.
The U.S. Senate on Tuesday inched along a measure that would extend long-term benefits for three months. The move came with the support of six Republicans who joined Democrats in a test vote, signaling the potential for more meaningful progress in the chamber. During the discussion, senators recognized the fundamentals of the issue, with Republicans expressing concern for how the extended benefits will be funded – namely, by their reckoning, not through adding to the federal deficit. That is fair enough for conversation, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had a point when he said, “there is no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation without also finding ways to create good, stable, high-paying jobs – and also trying to find the money to pay for it. So what I’m saying is, let’s support meaningful job-creation measures, and let’s find a way to pay for these ... benefits, so we’re not adding to an already unsustainable debt.”
It will be interesting to see how McConnell intends to do any of those things – however worthy they are to pursue. He is correct that great emphasis should be placed on creating those “good, stable, high-paying jobs” that would get families and Congress out of the unemployment pickles they respectively face. In the meantime, too many of those families have only their unemployment insurance to rely on for rent, food, heat and other essentials. That must be a fundamental concern of Congress as it addresses the ongoing unemployment problem in the United States. And as lawmakers do so, they can then look to a longer-term solution that will buoy both workers and the economy. The first step, though, is meeting basic needs. The Senate’s unexpected momentum toward doing so is welcome. May it build quickly.