fresh voices from the front lines of change







Washington is wading into another debate over extending unemployment insurance benefits. Meanwhile, millions of jobless Americans are waiting for our elected leaders to finally get around to focusing on jobs. Donna McDonald, of Chicago, Illinois is one of those Americans. I spoke with Donna this week about her long-term joblessness, and the latest bid to extend unemployment insurance benefits.

Donna’s story reflects both the urgency of extending unemployment insurance benefits, and the imperative of returning to a full-employment economy. Twenty-one months ago, Donna lost the job she’d held for 12 years, heading up research and membership engagement for a global nonprofit. In December, she became one of 6 million jobless Americans over 50 who have lost or exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Congress extended unemployment benefits up to 99 weeks in 2008, to support workers who’d lost their jobs due to the financial crisis an ensuing recession. The assumption was that the crisis would pass by the time emergency extension expired. The crisis still hadn’t passed for millions of unemployed Americans when the extension expired in December of last year. Yet, Republicans blocked any extension of unemployment benefits.

The new Senate bill introduced by Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) differs from previous versions in that it provides no retroactive benefits to jobless workers who lost their benefits in December, but allows those who would have been eligible after to continue receiving unemployment benefits. The new legislation offsets costs with the same revenue increases that helped the previous version pass the Senate. It also faces the usual opposition in the House, where Republicans demand the bill include unspecified “job creation” provisions.

Donna’s story, like many of those shared during Witness Wednesdays on Capitol Hill, refutes the worse right-wing rhetoric about the unemployed.

Rep. Steve King (R-S.C.) compared the unemployed to lazy children who refuse to do chores. Yet, like many others, Donna worked virtually all her life. “I’ve worked since I was 14 years old,” she said. She earned two Masters degrees, professional certification, and worked for more than 20 years in her chosen field. Donna wants nothing so much as to get back to work. “It’s in my constitution,” she said. “It’s who I am.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) characterized unemployment benefits as “a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” Yet, unemployment benefits only cover a fraction of prior wages — 65 percent at most. Donna’s benefits barely covered her COBRA health insurance payments. She had to rely on savings and a small sum of money from selling her house to support herself and her daughter, who recently graduated from high school.

“You can’t be out of work for 21 months, and not dip into savings,” Donna said.

Unemployment benefits are no substitute for a full-employment economy that puts the long-term unemployed back to work — at full pay — but they provide much-needed support, and alleviate health problems that result from the stress of long-term unemployment. They boost the health of the economy, too. A Congressional Budget Office report said unemployment benefits leads the unemployed to “increase their spending on consumer goods and services,” creating “aggregate demand” that encourages businesses to “boost production and hire more workers.”

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said that unemployment insurance “… basically keep[s] an economy that encourages people to, rather than go out and look for work, to stay on unemployment.” Donna spends more time looking for work — going to job search seminars, networking, and hitting the jobs boards — than many people spend at work. “I spend probably 55 hours a week doing a job search,” she said, “and it’s still a very long process.”

Republicans like Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) think the unemployed should accept any job they can find. In February, Coats and Portman offered a “reform amendment” that would require the unemployed to “accept any offer of suitable work” — defined as “any work which is within such individual’s capabilities” — or kiss their benefits goodbye. Donna, who was herself a hiring manager, pointed out employers are “reluctant to hire someone who’s so overqualified that they’re likely to leave in three, four, or six months,” if something better comes along.

As Washington cranks up another debate over unemployment insurance, Donna and millions like her are still waiting to hear Washington talk about putting people like them back to work. “I have not heard anything at all about an agenda for job creation, or full employment,” she said. “All I’ve heard are disparaging comments about the long-term unemployed.”

Before we said goodbye, I asked Donna if she had any final thoughts she wanted to share. Donna didn’t hesitate. “The focus shouldn’t be unemployment,” she said. “The focus of the discussion should be employment, because we all want to work. That’s what we want to do. We want to get up every day and go to work. We want to use our skills. We want to use our knowledge. We want to contribute. We want to work.”

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