Larry LaRocco: Emergency Unemployment Program needs to be renewed

GUEST OPINION: JOBLESS BENEFITS

January 3, 2014 

Larry LaRocco

DARIN OSWALD / IDAHO STATESMAN

Over the past weekend, 2,500 Idahoans lost their extended unemployment benefits. Those Idahoans have been seeking employment without success for more than six months.

Across the United States, 1.3 million long-term unemployed lost their benefits averaging $300 per week. This modest amount keeps the unemployed and their families barely afloat while seeking a job.

The Emergency Unemployment Program began during the 2008 economic crisis under former President George W. Bush. It was designed to pick up when state benefits end at 26 weeks. Policy makers and economists recognized the Great Recession hit many Americans at all levels of income and education. They wisely formulated an emergency response. Congress has voted to continue this emergency program 11 times. Until now.

In the first six months of 2014, 1.9 million additional Americans will exhaust their state unemployment benefits and the federal safety net will end for them as well.

The average length of unemployment in the U.S. is currently 36 weeks and the long-term unemployment rate is 2.6 percent. Those are high numbers.

This congressional lump of coal in the stockings of the long-term unemployed is bad for the economy and compounds their personal trauma. The dropped workers from the emergency program may simply stop looking for work and put a greater burden on government and community assistance programs. And the families affected will feel additional stress and strain as all financial options have most likely been exhausted.

This tough-love approach is not benign. It has real consequences.

It’s not easy being out of work. I’ve been there. In 1972, when my family and I returned from the U.S. Army to a recession in Idaho, I was out of work. It took time to find a job. The psychological and financial tolls were harder than I imagined.

In that instance, I was not unemployed for more than 26 weeks. However, I have an insider’s view of how tough it must be for those enduring short- or long-term unemployment. I seriously wonder whether our policy makers have lost their ability to put themselves in the shoes of those less fortunate.

Our current unemployment rate is not low enough to end this emergency program. It doesn’t make economic sense and it doesn’t pass the common-sense test to stop it now. The economy is improving, but it has not reached a point where the long-term unemployed should be cut loose. Studies show employers are slower to pick them up just because they’ve been out of work so long and in spite of a killer resume.

Congress will revisit this issue soon. Let’s hope that reasoned, empathetic and compassionate voices prevail.

Former U.S. Rep. Larry LaRocco lives in Boise.

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