Even President Bush acknowledges that there are lots of Americans who can’t find jobs, but says there are not enough of them to justify granting the jobless more of the unemployment benefits that have helped sustain them.
Not enough? There are at least 8 million workers who want and need jobs but can’t find them. And month after month, more than 200,000 of the jobless exhaust the benefits that have kept them going while they looked for work. Nearly 20 percent of them have been searching for more than six months, the others for an average of four months.
In the meantime, the number of available jobs has been declining steadily – by 300,000 over the past six months alone. Which means there is roughly one job available for every two people who are actively seeking work, and explains why as many as one-fourth of the jobless have simply quit looking.
Given the generally poor state of the economy, the jobless aren’t likely to have any better luck soon. Those who’ve exhausted the 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, provided by the government through state and federal taxes on employers, are in great need of at least 13 more weeks of benefits. There’s money for that in the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund, which currently holds more than $35 billion.
Congressional Democrats have proposed measures to extend benefits, currently averaging $285 a week, but have been blocked by Republican opposition and, most importantly, by President Bush’s threat to veto any extension of benefits.
The Democrats and their AFL-CIO allies had hoped to make extension a key part of an economic stimulus package, not only as a way to give jobless workers and their families badly needed help, but also to boost the sagging economy by putting $1 billion to $2 billion a month into circulation almost immediately.
Boosting the economy was a main reason for creation of the Unemployment Insurance system during the Great Depression of the 1930s. For it puts money into the hands of people who must immediately spend it – for food, housing and other basic necessities. It could be particularly important, for example, to the homeowners and communities hardest hit by the current foreclosure crisis.
Certainly the economy was noticeably helped during the recessions of the early 1990s when Congress extended the benefit payout period on five different occasions. Benefits also were extended with a positive effect during the recession of 2001, when some Republicans who opposed the move actually warned that extended benefits would encourage idleness. Bush hasn’t gone quite that far. Yet.
There’s even more reason now for extension, since finding jobs is even more difficult than in the past. The Democrats in Congress understand that. Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of
Even those who manage to find jobs often can find only part-time work, and many have no choice but to take jobs paying less than their previous jobs and providing lesser fringe benefits. That in turn can put a strain on local governments, which might have to provide services, such as health care, that the workers’ previous employers had financed. Workers who remain jobless put an even greater burden on governments, of course.
McDermott and his Democratic colleagues are stepping up their attempts to extend jobless benefits, with particular attention to Congressional Republicans from states with especially high unemployment. They’re also hoping for the election of a Democrat after Bush leaves office, since both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama support extension.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com