Fight Tuesday For 2 Million Unemployed

Isaiah J. Poole

There are 2 million people who are about to lose their unemployment benefits starting at the end of this month, and yet there is a real possibility that the lame-duck Congress that starts its work today will just let that happen. Some members of Congress will mistakenly think that the repudiation Democrats experienced at the polls two weeks ago means they must sacrifice the unemployed to satisfy the blood lust of right-wing budget-cutting. That is absolutely false, and Tuesday is the day you can help prove it.

That is the day a coalition of groups that include USAction, The Other 98% and True Majority is asking you to flood members of Congress—and particularly the Senate—with calls of your support for a one-year extension of unemployment benefits. To participate, you can either go to the campaign’s click-to-call website, or call this toll-free number: 1-866-606-1189.

At stake are both the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program and the Extended Benefits program. Both programs were triggered after the 2007 economic crash. Since World War II, it has been customary for Congress to authorize federal funds for extended unemployment benefits for as long as the unemployment rate exceeds 7 percent. If Congress fails to continue these benefits at a time when most economists expect unemployment to continue to hover well above 9 percent through 2011, that would be unprecedented. It would also be devastating, both to the unemployed and to the economy as a whole: Not only would we be adding to the number of people living in poverty, but we would actually slow economic growth, if not knock it into reverse, as we take the dollars the unemployed spend out of the economy.

A new poll released today already confirms that a majority of the public supports extended unemployment benefits. The poll of 802 voters by Hart Associates found that 60 percent favor continuing the current set of unemployment benefits, which allow workers seeking jobs to collect federally funded benefits when their state unemployment benefits expire, up to a total of 99 weeks.

An even larger percentage of respondents, 73 percent, agreed that with unemployment at nearly 10 percent, it is too early to consider cutting back on benefits. Only 24 percent agreed with the statement that the size of the federal deficit called for cutting back unemployment benefits. Even 55 percent of Republicans agreed that it is too early to cut benefits.

All this is also happening as the Congress decides whether it will extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. That sets up this fundamental moral as well as political question: Are we really going to say that we can afford to increase the deficit by $700 billion by continuing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, while saying we cannot afford less than one-tenth that amount—$65 billion—to enable unemployed people to feed themselves and stay in their homes until the job market improves?

Some members of Congress may be seduced by a “compromise” that would continue these benefits for two or three months, effectively punting this issue to the next Congress, with its Republican-controlled House. Since the Republicans have been making the wrong-headed argument for months that unemployment benefits actually contribute to unemployment, it’s a safe bet that a three-month extension equals terminating the program in three months. At least with a one-year extension, there is a chance that there will either be improved economic conditions or a changed political climate when the next continuation decision has to be made.

The National Employment Law Project has prepared some talking points to help people communicate their concerns to members of Congress. Among them:

  • The unemployment insurance program serves as a lifeline for millions of unemployed Americans and their families who are now at the mercy of the worst job market since the Great Depression.
  • Given our slow-moving and fragile recovery right now, the last thing we should do is pull demand out of the economy. But cutting off the federal unemployment insurance program will do exactly that. Unemployment insurance payments 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.
  • Unemployment benefits are the most effective form of stimulus spending in an economy which is not growing jobs and therefore experiencing low consumer demand. Continuing the current federal unemployment insurance programs through 2011 will generate over 700,000 full-time jobs in 2011, and the revenue generated by those jobs coupled with the reduced need for other safety-net programs, will effectively pay for well-more than half of the cost of continuing the benefits.
  • Americans are justifiably angry when they see the federal government bail out the banks, which got us into this mess in the first place, and then turn its back on unemployed Americans struggling to take care of their families. We should not forget that unemployment insurance is a bedrock middle-class program to tide families over during hard times when a breadwinner loses his or her job. The unemployed aren’t seeking a bailout; all they’re asking is that the insurance system they paid into their whole working lives be there for them when they need it.

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