How Much Longer Before Emergency Unemployment Is Extended?

April 3, 2014

The tool I use for this blog tells me, among other things, the search terms that brought people to my posts. One last week was so sad. “How much longer before emergency unemployment is extended.”

Sad because I suspect the query writer had a person interest. Sadder because I haven’t the foggiest — and no one else does either. Saddest because I’m not sure Emergency Unemployment Compensation will be extended.

On the upside of this ongoing saga, the bipartisan Senate group agreed on some improvements to the bill I last wrote about. And the Senate will pass the bill today — perhaps before you read this — since six Republicans joined all Democrats in agreeing on the motion to vote.

On the downside, we’ve no evidence that House Speaker John Boehner will permit a vote on the bill. And he’s seized on a new reason, though it’s obvious any reason would do.

What the Senate Passed

Like the previous version, the final Senate bill renews EUC for five months, back-dated to the time it expired.

Unlike the previous version, the offsets no longer include any erosion in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits. We’ve instead got another of those pension accounting devices — perhaps not the most fiscally responsible pay-for, but it gets the job done without hurting anybody.

A provision that required agencies to assess the reasons a jobless worker was still unemployed is gone — perhaps because negotiators realized how absurd it was at a time when there are only 40% as many job openings and people looking.

Also gone is a related provision requiring agencies to develop specific action plans for all EUC recipients — a daunting task for agencies that have been under-funded for a long time and will have extra work due to the benefits lapse.

Some other provisions related to “work suitability,” job searches and the like have been replaced by a benign mandate for a Government Accountability Office study.

But the ban on federally-funded unemployment benefits for millionaires and billionaires is still there — one of those cheap political gestures, like the ban on food stamps for lottery winners. A small price to pay, I suppose, but a bad precedent for a social insurance program.

Over in the House

As I’ve written before, Speaker Boehner has drawn a line in the sand. A bill to renew EUC must not only be paid for, but paired with other measures that “will get our economy moving again.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office earlier concluded that a year-long EUC extension would boost the economy and create as many as 300,000 jobs. But that apparently won’t do.

What would do isn’t clear. Boehner is still just saying he’s got to see something that “would help the economy and help people get back to work.”

He has, however, made occasional references to “dozens of bills” House Republicans have passed, e.g. to hamstring the regulatory agencies, block grant (and freeze funding for) job training programs and, needless to say, repeal the Affordable Care Act.

He now has a new arrow in his quiver, thanks to what seems to have been an ill-advised letter from the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Giving the organization the benefit of the doubt here, since anyone with a grain of political sense would have known how the letter would be used.

Briefly, NASWA cites administrative challenges that could lead to delays in implementing the EUC renewal legislation, along with a potential for some overpayments.

No one, to my knowledge, has said it would be quick and easy, though it surely would have been if Republicans had quickly agreed to support a renewal.

Yet state agencies have successfully implemented retroactive extensions before. The Secretary of Labor cites twelve, including some with changes that “were as or more complex than those included in the current bill.”

And unless I’m mistaken, the final version of the bill addresses some of the specific concerns the state agencies raised — notably how to deal with the millionaire ban.

Boehner nevertheless insists that the bill is “unworkable,” citing the NASWA letter. The president of the association asserts that the letter didn’t “label” the bill that way — suggesting, at least to me, some second thoughts on the advisability of sending it at all.

The plain truth is that it doesn’t matter. Senator Dean Heller, a lead Republican on the bipartisan team, rightly observes that “no matter what solution is reached, there is some excuse to deny these much-needed benefits.”

So if it isn’t one thing, it will be another — unless and until something happens to persuade enough House Republicans that denying a lifeline to long-term jobless workers and their families is no way to show that the party care about everyday folks.

The stalemate — overcome in the Senate, but not the House — has thus far harmed well over 3.4 million jobless workers. An additional 72,000 join their ranks every week. Their poverty rate nearly doubles.

How much longer will this go on?

UPDATE: Prognosticators, including me, were wrong. The Senate vote on the EUC bill has been postponed until Monday.

 

 


Next Round in Battle to Renew Long-Term Unemployment Benefits

March 10, 2014

Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a sharp increase in the number of long-term jobless workers — 203,000 more who’d been unemployed and actively looking than in January.

This brought the average number of weeks jobless workers had been looking up to 37.1 — about 11 weeks more than most state unemployment insurance programs cover.

At least two million jobless workers have no UI benefits now, but would if Congress renewed Emergency Unemployment Compensation — and back-dated it to the end of December, when the program expired.

As I’m sure you know, Senate Democrats have been trying to pass an EUC extension since mid-December. Republicans haven’t delivered the five votes needed for the Senate to vote on the extension itself.

The ostensible hang-up is the offset, i.e., the source or sources of funds that would keep the extension from adding to the near-term deficit. But some of the potentially persuadable Republicans have further complicated matters by insisting on amendments to reform UI.

And as if that weren’t enough, they wanted the package to include a repeal of the temporary, modified cost-of-living adjustment for military pensions that was part of the December budget deal.

Well, the Senate took care of the repeal in mid-February, using a pay-for Republicans wouldn’t accept for the EUC extension. Now it’s going back to EUC again.

Majority Leader Harry Reid is calling for a six-month extension — five months shorter than the paid-for version he’d earlier proposed. He’d use savings already achieved in the new Farm Bill as the offset. Politico reports the cost at about $12 billion. That would leave about $11 billion for deficit reduction.

Seven Republicans have countered with a five-month extension. They’ve got an altogether different pay-for. And they fold in program “improvements,” including one that has little or nothing to do with unemployment compensation.

Too much to cram into one post. So I’ll deal with the pay-for here. As you’ll see, the Gang of Seven seems to have moved toward the Democratic majority. This, alas, is not an altogether good thing.

The pay-for has three parts. The first would extend so-called pension smoothing provisions that Congress earlier used to help pay for the highway bill.

Basically, pension smoothing allows employers to temporarily reduce their contributions to employee pension plans. This raises revenues for awhile because the contributions are tax-deductible.

But it then loses revenues because employers have to make up what they didn’t contribute earlier. The losses, however, fall outside the 10-year period used to estimate what federal laws will cost.

In short, it’s what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls a “timing gimmick.” It also, as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says, raises the risk that pension funds will need a bailout, thus further increasing federal costs.

Senate Republicans shot down pension smoothing when Reid tried to use it for a three-month EUC extension — or at any rate, they blocked the bill, claiming (rightly) that he limited their chances to amend it.

A second part of the pay-for is a modified version of an amendment Senator Rob Portman wanted to offer. In its new iteration, severely disabled workers who receive UI benefits would lose the same amount from their SSDI (Supplemental Security Disability Insurance) benefits.

This too was a pay-for Reid earlier offered — and borrowed from the President’s proposed budget. But it still “uniquely burdens” disabled workers, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzig says.

It also undermines the work incentive in SSDI. And it establishes a terrible precedent of raiding Social Security to fund other benefits programs, as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities warned several months ago.

The last part of the pay-for extends customs users fees through 2024. These are charges imposed for certain activities of the U.S. Customs Service, e.g., clearing merchandise for import.

So for better and worse, the Gang of Seven seems to have come round to a pay-for the Democratic majority could accept. But, as I said, it’s paired with some problematic “reforms” to the EUC program.

Politico reports that Reid may take another stab at passing an EUC bill this week. How far he’ll move to pick up the Republican votes he needs remains to be seen.

How far he should move is a daunting question.


What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.


Who Should Pay for Extended Unemployment Benefits?

February 3, 2014

Politico reports progress in the Senate toward renewing Emergency Unemployment Compensation. The “biggest sticking point” may again be amendments, it notes.

As I said last week, the effort to renew EUC broke down because Republicans wanted to offer amendments to the short-term, stopgap bill that was one of the options Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed.

Some of those amendments would have offset the costs in ways that many, if not all Democrats would have found too objectionable to vote for, even though defeating them could have led Republicans to again block a vote on the bill itself — and blame them for the harm.

Here, as promised, are how two of them would pay for the short-term extension. Each answers the question in the title above differently, but both deny safety net benefits to vulnerable low-income people.

Low-Income Children Should Pay for It

Senator Kelly Ayottte (R-NH) fished an old proposal out of a file and put some gloss on it. Her amendment, as originally proposed, would deny the refundable part of the Child Tax Credit to immigrants who don’t have Social Security numbers — even if their children are U.S. citizens, as an estimated four million are.

Well over two million families would have to pay, on average, $1,800 more in taxes a year, according to figures in a 2011 report by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General. That’s a big bite, since they reportedly earn, on average, $21,000 a year.

The money saved by denying the credit to immigrants who dutifully pay their taxes would far exceed the costs of the three-month extension Senator Ayotte wanted to attach it to.

Her amendment would commit nearly as much to restoring the full cost-of-living adjustment to pension benefits for some former members of the military services. The COLA took a nick in December’s budget deal.

As you might imagine, there have been howls from diverse quarters. So Ayotte cleverly aims to put Democrats in a bind, since a vote to protect low-income children, most of them Hispanic, would be a vote against our veterans.

Now she’s amended her amendment to single out only immigrants whose children aren’t citizens — and styled it solely as a way of righting a wrong “against our men and women in uniform.”

It’s nonetheless a punitive pay-for, affecting a million or so children who had no say in where they were born or where they live now.

Severely Disabled Workers Should Pay for It

Senator Reid found some of his pay-for in the President’s last budget, which proposed a dollar-for-dollar reduction in SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits when recipients receive unemployment benefits.

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) took this dubious cost-saving idea and made it far worse, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains.

Basically, his amendment would define eligibility for unemployment benefits as proof that the laid-off disabled worker was engaged in substantial gainful activity — and ineligible for SSDI.

This would wholly redefine SGA, which under current rules, means earning more than $1,070 for nine months within a five-year period. Part-time work that pays less — or any work that’s been engaged in for less time — has no immediate effect on SSDI eligibility.

It does enable some recipients to supplement their far from generous monthly benefits — on average, $1,146 last month. And it gives them an opportunity to see if they can return to self-supporting work.

You’d think that a member of a party that believes in giving people a hand up out of the safety net would avoid anything that discouraged work.

But Portman’s amendment surely would because SSDI recipients who ventured back into the workforce could be dropped from the program if they were laid off, even if they didn’t claim the unemployment benefits they were entitled to.

They’d have to wait five months to reapply, just as newly-disabled workers do. And once they’d managed to get reapproved, they’d have to wait two years to qualify for Medicare, even if they’d been enrolled before.

I think it’s only fair to note that the Obama administration opened the door to this pay-for and that the Senate Democratic leadership kept it open. It’s an awful idea in principle, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzig says.

But it’s also true that Portman hasn’t, as he claims, taken a proposal from the President’s own budget — or that unemployment insurance and SSDI are “mutually exclusive.”

“We should never be forced to meet the needs of one vulnerable population by robbing another,” as Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) told his colleagues a few weeks ago.

Both the SSDI and the Child Tax Credit pay-fors would do this. And they’d make permanent changes in the laws. A lot of harm to offset costs that would represent less than 0.014% of the federal budget.*

* This is the 10-year figure produced by the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s responsible budget calculator.


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