Millions of jobless Americans are out in the cold after exhausting their unemployment insurance. Now what?
On Unemployed Friends 2.0, a message board for people who have been out of work long enough to exhaust all emergency unemployment insurance -- "99ers," as some have taken to calling themselves -- users let off steam in the Venting Forum.
I am sooo tired of calling temp agencies week after week with no callbacks or results ... I'm burned out from over 2 years of this routine. --503Depressed
This feels like a permanent state. Even though I send out resumes, I don't really think anyone is going to call or that I will ever work again. --nfpexec
Been unemployed over 2 years, sent out resume to hundreds of jobs, 4 interviews and nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. --js123
Please don't give up, be good to yourself today, and try to stay positive. We are all in this together. You are not alone. --DesperateInRI
Given the focus on spending cuts in Washington, one might think that America's unemployment problem was under control. But our jobs quandary is far from over, surpassing even the Great Depression in one respect: The gap between the number of people out of work (13.9 million) and the number of job openings (2.8 million) has never been so wide. Congress responded to these historically grim conditions in 2009 by extending unemployment benefits to an unprecedented 99 weeks. For many Americans, however, time is up, with no job in sight.
"We're in extraordinary times that break all the rules with respect to recovery," Gregg Rosen, co-founder of the American 99ers Union, told The Root. He explained that "99er" is a generalized term representing individuals who have exhausted all benefits up to 99 weeks, since the length of emergency unemployment insurance varied depending on the state. While the March jobs report (pdf) showed that nearly 1.9 million workers have been unemployed for the maximum 99 weeks (an increase of 127,000 from February), more than 6 million have actually reached the limit of their insurance.
With five unemployed workers for every job opening, their ranks are only growing.
Legislation to extend unemployment benefits for 99ers, introduced by two Congressional Black Caucus members, is being discussed, but the heavily opposed idea has made little headway. Meanwhile, as they drop off of Washington's radar, and as the Obama administration lauds an unemployment rate that edged down to 8.8 percent last month, millions of Americans in financial free fall can't help feeling effectively abandoned.
"One reason that [unemployment] number is going down is because once you become a 99er, you're no longer counted on the record as unemployed," said Rosen. "With respect to how the government collates the numbers, these people sort of just disappear."
Who Are the 99ers?
Similar to trends in general unemployment, some groups are overrepresented among the long-term unemployed. According to a December 2010 Congressional Research Service report (pdf), unemployed older Americans are more likely to be out of work for more than 99 weeks -- 10.7 percent of adults aged 45 and older, compared with 6 percent of those under 35. Unemployed black workers also skew higher in the 99ers community, with 10 percent remaining jobless for longer than 99 weeks, compared with 7.3 percent of whites.
"But the group is widespread -- it's black, white, Latino, young and old," said Rosen, who further notes that all educational levels, from blue-collar workers to Ph.D. holders, are equally represented among 99ers. Rosen, a former marketing executive who was laid off in 2008 as a result of the recession, helped organize the American 99ers Union, a coalition group (not actually a union) to give unemployed workers a united voice.
Frank Wallace, 46, worked as a purchasing and supply supervisor at a Philadelphia law firm before leaving in 2008 because of anxiety-related health reasons. Unable to find a new job, he exhausted his unemployment insurance of $364 a week in January. "I look for jobs online daily, and I've definitely gone to more than 12 job fairs in the past year," he told The Root. "I've applied for warehouse jobs, shipping, manufacturing, clerking. Last week I applied for a job as a sorter with waste management. I usually don't hear anything from them, though, and interviews have been few and far between."
Wallace, who has had a lifelong struggle with clinical anxiety and spends his time volunteering when not scouring his networks for jobs, is faring slightly better than some of his fellow 99ers. In February he was able to start collecting $205 in public assistance and food stamps to pay his bills on zero income. "It's been emotionally draining and very frustrating," he said, adding that he's heard of other people struggling with long-term unemployment whose fear and desperation drove them to take their own lives. In fact, suicide rates increase in direct proportion to unemployment.
"The average unemployment benefit check is just over $300 a week, so it's not as if any of us are living high off the hog," said Wallace, bristling at the common stereotype. "I'm just trying to make it the best I can."
Economics, Not Emotion
Descriptions of the long-term unemployed as unwilling to get a job are nonetheless pervasive in arguments against extending benefits. Some Republican legislators insist that the jobs are indeed out there. Because extending unemployment insurance alone -- in 2009's Recovery Act -- cost more than $100 billion, they say the government should no longer foot the bill.
Last June, then-candidate Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggested that people using unemployment benefits simply needed a dose of tough love. "As bad as it sounds, ultimately we do have to sometimes accept a wage that's less than we had at our previous job in order to get back to work and allow the economy to get started again," Paul said in a radio interview.
This month, during a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) implied that extending unemployment insurance deters people from looking for work. "Folks that have been identified as dropping out of the job market do come back once benefits go back to their ordinary lengths," he claimed.
To such allegations, Rosen responds, "We have over 6 million Americans who have not been able to find work, and who have not had any form of compensation for over a year," he said. "You're telling me that they'd rather face homelessness and hunger than go out and get a job? I find that hard to believe."
Many economists maintain that there aren't enough jobs available. Furthermore, they believe that temporarily extending unemployment insurance has a stimulating ripple effect on the economy.
"The economic case is absolutely overwhelming that, instead of having conversations about what and how much to cut from our deficit, we should be talking about additional stimulus spending," Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told The Root. "Extending unemployment insurance is one of the most efficient things we can do to generate new jobs. If you get money in the hands of people who have been unemployed that long, they have no choice but to turn around and spend it on rent, utility bills and groceries in their local economy."
A 2010 Congressional Budget Office report (pdf) ranks unemployment insurance as the most bang-for-the-buck short-term means of economic stimulus, generating up to $1.90 in economic activity for every $1 that the government spends. But how long would this cycle have to continue before the economy improved on a more substantial level?
"There is no economic literature that says, 'X is the magic number of weeks,' " said Shierholz. "But for the past two years, there have been five or more unemployed workers for every job opening. There have been literally no jobs."
Rosen emphatically agrees that extending unemployment insurance benefits is just common sense. "This is not about emotion or being the morally right thing to do," he said. "It's economically the sound thing to do in this country."
A Glimmer of Hope
At least some members of Congress agree that unemployment benefits for 99ers should be extended. In February, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act, which would extend emergency insurance for 14 weeks for workers who have exhausted all their benefits. So far the bill has 78 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
After rattling off the economic benefits, Scott said that unemployment insurance is exactly for times like these. "Every time in the past, when we've been in this situation of having long-term unemployment and the jobs aren't there, we have routinely extended unemployment compensation benefits as an emergency. This has always been the case," he told The Root. "Another problem is that employers are more likely to hire people who are still working, so when you've been out of work for a long time, it's even harder to get the few jobs that are available."
Scott and Lee are working to schedule a meeting this week with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) about their 99ers bill. Scott declined to predict what the outcome may be.
"My job is to make the case, and hopefully they'll recognize that a lot of people in this situation are hurting and that this is a cost-effective thing we can do," he said.
Rosen, who supports the legislation and appeared at the press conference announcing it, also remains hopeful despite less-than-promising signs. Last December, as Congress wrestled over extending the filing deadline to allow more Americans longer unemployment insurance, most Republicans, now the House majority, were against the idea. That extension excluded 99ers and came as part of a deal with the president, a deal that spent more than $800 billion to extend tax cuts for two years for the wealthiest Americans.
"Time and time again, they would talk about the future," he said, referring to right-wing fearmongering about America's children being saddled with the deficit. "We have to bring people back to reality and get them to stop looking to the future. Look at today. Because if people can't afford to keep a roof over their children's heads, feed them or otherwise provide for them today -- they're not going to have a future."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.