Small Victory For Jobless Workers

As you all know by now, Carte Goodwin, temporary replacement for the late Senator Byrd, arrived last Tuesday past the nick of time to break the Republican’s filibuster of the latest extension of unemployment insurance benefits. The House swiftly passed the bill. The President signed it. And the Senate moved on to other stalemates.

The UI extension bill provides immediate relief for about 2.5 million jobless workers whose extended benefits were cut off when the authorizing legislation expired. Extended benefits will also be available to other workers who exhaust their regular state benefits before the end of November.

They’ll get somewhere between 34 and 73 weeks of additional benefits, depending on how high their state’s unemployment rate is. Here in the District, with a current unemployment rate of 10%, eligible jobless workers will be able to get a total of 99 weeks of benefits.

I wish I could just rejoice in the hard-won victory. But I can’t help pondering the relatively small impact the bill will have on what promise to be long-term hardships for a vast number of jobless workers and their families.

Several major issues here.

First off, all jobless workers will get $25 a week less than they would have under all but the latest versions of was once a modest, but broader effort to deal with the jobs situation.

This will bring the average weekly benefit down to $284 — less than what’s needed to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line. So jobless workers may have benefits, but we’re still likely to have more families facing utility cutoffs, evictions, etc.

Second, we’re told that only about two-thirds of the 14.6 million people who are officially unemployed are getting unemployment benefits. “Officially” here means that they’ve got no job whatever and are actively looking for one.

At least some portion of the remaining third didn’t earn enough and/or work enough recently enough to qualify. The 1.2 million people who’d looked but given up aren’t getting unemployment benefits either.

Third, the extension will do nothing for workers who’d already exhausted their maximum benefits — the so-called 99ers. Blogger Jackie Headapohl says that economists estimate their number at around 1 million. Also says it’s expected to double or even triple in the months to come.

Received wisdom seems to be that the longer you’ve been out of work, the longer you’ll be out of work. Various reasons floated for this. One, which is bad news even for a lot of recently laid-off people, is that employers have eliminated certain types of positions, e.g., secretaries, travel agents, auto workers.

These jobs have been automated, outsourced or foisted off on other employees. Even a full economic recovery won’t bring them back.

This may be a particular problem for older workers who don’t have the time and resources to retool. Even if they do, they’re likely to face out-and-out age discrimination. Also some biases that amount to the same thing.

Employers may be ready to hire young workers with little or no relevant job experience. But as a commenter on the Poverty in America blog said, “a 57 year old with no experience in a new field isn’t exactly in demand.”

What are these workers to do until they’re old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits that will barely cover their living expenses, if that? By then, many will probably have tapped their shrunken retirement savings.

We can expect the Democrats to mount yet another effort to extend the extra tiers of unemployment benefits some time before the end of November. But, as Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein says, the latest vote in the Senate shows that any further extension will have to be offset — and may not pass even if it is.

Back in May, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) pledged to “work with [his] colleagues to create a fifth tier of benefits,” i.e., some unspecified number of weeks beyond the current 99-week maximum. Colleague and influential Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has already turned thumbs down on this.

Over on the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has thus for remained technically neutral. At the end of November, she says, “we’ll take up something,” but it will have to satisfy members “from low unemployment areas [who] are very concerned about the deficit.” Odds are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will adopt the same calculus and that both will limit their efforts to the existing tiers.

But even repeated extensions of unemployment benefits, with still another tier for at least some long-time jobless people wouldn’t resolve the underlying problem.

The labor market has shed 7.5 million jobs since the recession began. Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute says it would need to add about 325,000 jobs every month for the next four years to bring the unemployment rate back down to its pre-recession level. Haven’t seen anyone projecting anything remotely approaching this.

Will Congress rise to the challenges of what promises to be a prolonged jobs crisis, with even longer-term damage to human lives? If past is prologue, the answer is a resounding NO, even if the Democrats do better in November than the prognosticators expect.

What’s worse, it’s hard to know what Congress could do to put such a large number of unemployed people back to work, while at the same time ensuring that new entrants to the job market find work too.

Which is not to say it should wash its hands of the problem. Every job it could save or create would mean at least one less person on the brink of desperation — or over the edge.

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One Response to Small Victory For Jobless Workers

  1. [...] you may recall, in late July, the Senate finally managed to pass the latest extension of the two related programs that fund expanded unemployment insurance [...]

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