GUEST COMMENTARY: Restore safety net for unemployed Americans

2014-01-23T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Restore safety net for unemployed AmericansBy Thomas E. Perez
January 23, 2014 12:00 am  • 

This winter, Katherine Hackett is wearing a hat and coat around her house. She keeps her thermostat set at 58 degrees. After 17 years in the health care industry, Katherine abruptly got a pink slip and has been unemployed for more than a year.

But so far, Congress has shown little interest in throwing her a lifeline. By failing to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, Congress has cut off jobless benefits that help Katherine and millions like her keep the lights on and the rent or mortgage paid.

In Illinois this year, 230,500 unemployed people will feel the impact of a failure to extend EUC. An additional 69,300 will feel the impact in Indiana.

Nearly 69 million people have received a hand-up from extended unemployment benefits since 2008. Last year alone, the program lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty.

Plus, these benefits act as a broader economic stimulus. Failure to renew the program would mean an estimated 240,000 American jobs lost, 13,345 of them in Illinois and 3,406 in Indiana.

To pull the plug on extended benefits now would be historically unprecedented. We have never done so when long-term unemployment was even half as high as it is right now.

The longer you’re out of a job, the harder it is to find one.

The stories I hear in my visits with long-term unemployed workers are heartbreaking. Staring at possible home foreclosure and the depletion of their 401(k) plans, they see the American Dream slipping away.

Some have suggested the unemployed are lazy and these benefits make them more so. This is as offensive as it is flat-out wrong. For one thing, an aggressive job search is a precondition for the receipt of unemployment benefits.

Besides, it just defies common sense. No one is living the good life on unemployment insurance. On average, it replaces only about half of a worker’s earnings.

EUC is a stopgap. As the president recently explained, these benefits are not “hammocks for people to just lie back and relax.” Rather, they are a springboard back to gainful employment and economic security. EUC is a lifesaver, not a lifestyle.

Benefits expired for 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28. But, unconscionably and irresponsibly, Congress continues to sit on its hands, adjourning for recess without leading on this issue. A minority of U.S. senators continues to block any extension, while the majority leadership of the House of Representatives won’t even bring it up for a vote.

The president has said extending EUC should be the nation’s first order of business for 2014. To ease hardship and provide some relief in Illinois, Indiana and nationwide, Congress must act immediately.

Thomas E. Perez is the U.S. secretary of labor. The opinions are the writer's.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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