Long-Term Unemployment Benefits Saved, But Scaled Back

February 17, 2012

So the Republicans and Democrats agreed on a deal to extend long-term unemployment insurance benefits — defying predictions of another cliffhanger or worse.

Also extended, as you’ve probably read, were the employee payroll tax cut and the “doc fix” to avert huge cuts in Medicare reimbursements. As you may not have read, some programs for low-income people got a new, temporary lease on life as well.

The UI benefits extension is surely good news for the million or so jobless workers who’d otherwise have lost their benefits in March. Also good news for jobless workers who’d have run through their regular state benefits by year’s end.

No extension would have meant benefits losses for nearly 4.5 million by December — 12,600 in the District of Columbia alone.

Add to the good news column some changes in the UI program that didn’t get into the deal — or survived only in more palatable forms.

The most problematic would have denied benefits to jobless workers without a high school diploma or the equivalent unless they were enrolled in classes leading to same. There’s no such barrier in the final bill.

But (why is there always a but?) the well-known 99 maximum weeks will soon be a thing of the past.

As I wrote awhile ago, the Extended Benefits program kicks in only when states’ unemployment rates are higher than they were during a comparable period in a prior year — and kicks off when they aren’t.

Because Congress didn’t change the law to let states shift their comparison period back, more and more states will “trigger off” EB. The expectation now is that no state — or the District — will be able to offer the final 10 or 20 weeks of benefits by December.

Because Congress did change the law, fewer weeks of benefits will be available under the other federally-funded program — Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

EUC benefits kick in directly after workers have exhausted their regular state unemployment benefits. They’re structured in tiers.

At this point, the first two are available to all jobless workers, giving them a maximum of 34 weeks — less only if they find employment.

Workers qualify for the next tier only if they live in states where the unemployment rate is at least 6%. That nets them 13 more weeks.

If they live in states where the unemployment rate is at least 8.5%, they can move to a fourth tier and get another 6 weeks.

The total then for workers in most states has been 79 weeks — counting the weeks available in their regular state program, but not EB.

The extensions legislation cuts the maximum number of weeks to 73, beginning in September. From June through August, the maximum will remain 79 weeks, but only in states where the unemployment rate is at least 9%.

At the same time, the legislation establishes a minimum 6% unemployment rate for the second tier. And it raises the minimum unemployment rates by half a percent for the remaining tiers.

As of September, the third tier becomes four weeks shorter and the fourth, final tier four weeks longer.

Bottom line is that, as of September, only 63 weeks will be available in most states. At this point, jobless workers have more weeks available in all but seven.

I suppose we should be grateful. The Republicans reportedly wanted to cap benefits at 59 weeks, as the original House bill would have.

So the Democrats got more than a strict split-the-difference deal, though only because they’d already followed the Obama administration’s lead in letting states trigger off while their unemployment rates remain abnormally high.

Even here, they negotiated a temporary fix, giving states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5% an additional 10 weeks of EUC if they’ve no EB weeks to provide. The boost is good only through May, however.

Huffington Post blogger Arthur Delaney reports that it will benefit jobless workers in at least 10 states.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note another Democrat victory here. The estimated $30 billion the UI benefits extension will cost won’t be offset by any tampering with the Child Tax Credit.

If House Republicans had had their way, refunds that help support more than five million low-income children would have been part of the pay-for.

So it’s not a perfect deal. But a deal got made. And it’s a whole lot better than the extension the House passed in December.

UPDATE: After I (hastily) posted this, I found that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities had created two tables that lay out the changes in the EUC program and the total weeks of benefits that will be available, with and without EB. A clearer picture of the complex end results than my prose could manage.


What They Said About Losing Unemployment Benefits

July 10, 2010

When the jobs/tax bill again ran into a brick wall in the Senate, I wrote a recap for the Poverty in America blog on Change.org, as well as the somewhat different, but equally angry review here.

The PIA posting triggered an outpouring of comments, virtually all from people who are unemployed and have been for some time. They tell us a couple of things.

First, the Tea Partiers aren’t the only people out there who are as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Some portion of the jobless population is furious. And they’re ready to throw the Republicans out — every last one of them. No way to know whether the hostile energy represents a critical mass or whether it will make any political difference.

Second, sheer desperation and something close to despair are even more pervasive than outrage.

Here are some extracts from the comments:

“I have already lost my home and my car is going next week…. None of us will even have food to eat so what [Fourth of July] Holiday will we have? … I have had to sell anything of value at all for pennies on the dollar and have no food…. I wonder if we will even survive.”

“I just lost my unemployment benefits at 79 weeks…. I’ve applied for literally EVERYTHING, and no jobs are forthcoming. Have college degree and graphic design skills, but NO JOBS! Most people think, ‘oh just go to Mickey D’s or something’ but I tell you those places won’t hire you if they see you have a degree and used to make good money (trust me, I’ve applied at all of them by now). I have a stack of bills that would have been paid this month, but now I will have to default on them all because no more UI.”

“I have been unemployed for the past year and a half, and I too am a college graduate…. At 37, for the first time in my life, I am facing an eviction…. I can’t tell you how scared I am right now. It is very tough being homeless in Los Angeles, especially if you are a single woman.

“I have been unemployed in northern Nevada for 1 1/2 years and my fiance is a master carpenter and has been unemployed for 2 years. WE HAVE NO MORE UNEMPLOYMENT [BENEFITS]!!! …. I had to get welfare last week (which I always swore to myself I would NEVER take a dime of) so my kids could eat. Still don’t know how we will keep a roof over our heads.”

“My July 4th ‘holiday’ is me coming up with a plan to avoid being homeless the end of July.”

“I’m 57 years old and was laid off through no fault of my own. I am not an IT professional, I am not trained in finance, and I have no experience in health care. I can’t even get a job in fast food because employers want young people who can ‘hustle.’ That’s most of the jobs that are available. I can’t get ‘retraining’ because I have no one to support me while I do it. And a 57 year old with no experience in a new field isn’t exactly in demand.”

These and countless similar stories give the lie to some major arguments against extending unemployment benefits.

We’re told, for example, that people don’t look for work so long as they’re getting their UI checks. The benefits are a “disincentive to seek new work,” said Senator Jon Kyle (R-AZ) on the Senate floor. They “turn the ‘safety net’ into a hammock,” opined Congressman Steve King (R-IA).

They’re one of the ways “we have really spoiled our citizenry,” said Sharron Angle, who’s running for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those … honest jobs,” like the clean-up chores she and her sibs once did in her family’s hotel.

But what the comments tell us is that a goodly number of unemployed people have been diligently looking — and would take those honest jobs if they could get them — because they can barely make do on UI benefits.

And then there’s the more popular deficit argument. We can’t extend unemployment benefits unless they’re totally paid for, e.g., by using stimulus funds intended to create jobs.  Think, after all, of the additional debt we’d be leaving our children.

No need, I trust, to rehash the arguments that UI benefits save and create jobs —  and thus, at the very least, help control the deficit. Also, I trust, no need to note how the proposed pay-for would rob Peter to pay Paul.

Let’s think instead about those children who will grow up with all the disadvantages of poverty if we cut their parents’ lifeline now.

Here’s what one of the jobless commenters has to say:

“The Republicans say that they want the extensions to be fully funded so our children and grandchildren do not take on such debt. What about NOW when we need to feed, clothe and house them … ?” How will they live right NOW?”

How, I wonder, would an opponent of the just-quashed emergency UI extension answer.