Every few months, a renewed debate seems to play out in Congress over extending unemployment benefits. Republicans claim that, given the deficit, extending benefits is fiscally irresponsible. (Some also argue that it discourages people from looking for work because apparently they'd rather sit around collecting meager checks.) Democrats counter that, in light of the country's deep economic hardship, now is not the time to focus singularly on the deficit.
The latest version of this dispute involves the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act, introduced by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Aimed at "99ers" — people who have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance without finding work — the bill would extend emergency benefits for 14 more weeks.
According to a Congressional Research Service report (pdf), in October 2010 there were roughly 1.5 million 99ers in the country.
Lee and Scott tried to add the measure to the House's Continuing Resolution that will fund government operations through the end of the fiscal year, but it was blocked by Republicans last week.
"It's a matter of priorities," Congressman Bobby Scott told The Root in an interview, measuring recent tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and wealthy estates against cutting off aid for the long-term unemployed.
"You cannot disconnect the budget struggles we're having today from the tax cuts from two months ago. If you spend $800 billion over two years, and then say, ‘We're broke and have to cut spending,' there's a connection. When you have no money and compassion for hardworking Americans who are struggling because the jobs don't exist, but you just had money and compassion for dead multi-millionaires, it just seems to be a warped sense of priorities."
Scott says that extending unemployment insurance is not just important for sympathetic reasons, but that it also has economic advantages. "If your goal is to create jobs in terms of stimulating the economy, economists have determined that investments in unemployment compensation are the most effective investments you can make," he said, citing studies that show a positive ripple effect from unemployment insurance as the money spreads through the economy. "That's in stark contrast to the tax cuts for the wealthy that we just passed, which will generate virtually no economic impact."
Still, after 99 weeks of unemployment benefits…should there be a point when they just expire? We can't afford to pay it forever, right? Scott isn't troubled by these questions.
"It is inappropriate to discontinue someone's unemployment compensation when the jobs aren't there," he said, explaining that there are currently four times more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available. Some positions have gone overseas, some have been overtaken by technology, and other businesses are just getting by with fewer employees. "These are people who had been working and are actively looking for a job, but however hard they look a lot of them will not be able to find one. It's not like they would rather be idle. To suggest that there's nothing that can be done is just not fair.
"One of the tragedies in this," Scott continued, "is that, as some of the jobs have disappeared and people need new skills, the Continuing Resolution cuts job training. It adds insult to injury."
Scott says that he and Congresswoman Barbara Lee will continue to bring up the 99ers bill at every opportunity. But with a Republican-controlled House it stands a slim chance of becoming law.
"If it doesn't pass, the Republican majority will be responsible," Scott said. "They have had several opportunities already, and there will be continuing opportunities, to help those most in need. The jobs aren't there, so this issue is not going to go away."