Unemployed Still Have a Shot to Get Benefits Back

In a shocking turn, six Republicans voted with Democrats to bring a benefits-extension bill to a full debate in the Senate.

President Barack Obama listens to Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., speak about extending emergency-unemployment benefits in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 7, 2014.
President Barack Obama listens to Katherine Hackett of Moodus, Conn., speak about extending emergency-unemployment benefits in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 7, 2014. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hails from Kentucky, where the 2013 unemployment rate exceeded the national average—8.2 percent versus 7 percent. McConnell himself, in a widely reported speech he made in in August of 2013, referred to unemployment conditions of rural Kentuckyians as a “depression, not a recession.”

How can McConnell and his colleagues justify not supporting unemployment insurance for their own constituents? And how does such cognitive dissonance go unchecked?

This comes after a year in which House Republicans stripped food stamps from the farm bill. GOP governors and state legislators opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. And now, in the first few weeks of 2014, House Republicans may refuse to pass benefits for the long-term unemployed.

After the Senate vote, President Obama, speaking at the White House, urged members of the House of Representatives to act promptly. “If this doesn’t get fixed, it will hurt about 14 million Americans over the course of this year: 5 million workers along with 9 million of their family members—their spouses, their kids.”

Offering a human face to the policy, the president spoke of a mother from Connecticut who has two sons serving in the military but is struggling to pay her heating bills. “This is not an abstraction. These are not statistics. These are your neighbors, your friends, your family members. It could at some point be any of us,” the president said.

President Obama even addressed the misguided comments of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who invoked the old Republican meme of a lazy welfare queen by claiming that an extension of unemployment benefits offered people an incentive to no longer look for work.

“The long-term unemployed are not lazy,” Obama added.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker spoke to The Root and reiterated the president’s message by emphasizing families and children.

“Today, there are still three unemployed job seekers for every job available. Now is not the time to make things harder for Americans looking for work.” Booker explained. “Congress has never before allowed special extended-unemployment benefits to expire when the long-term unemployment rate is as high as it is today. Failing to reinstate unemployment insurance is going to hurt families, because about 40 percent of the long-term unemployed live in households with children.”

According to the Congressional Budget Office, not extending unemployment-benefit payments would cost 240,000 jobs. But an extension could potentially create 300,000 jobs. The program essentially pays for itself because of the stimulative effect it has on communities. Families use these resources to buy basic needs like gas, food and clothing.

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