With both parties motivated to avoid another government shutdown, Congress appears close to a bipartisan budget deal. But any deal needs to include extending emergency federal unemployment benefits. The job market remains tough and long-term unemployment is still high. The added weeks of benefits are an essential lifeline for families and will keep more of them from falling through the government's safety net.
The nation's job market is slowly improving. Last month, the economy added 203,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 7 percent, the lowest in five years. But the average unemployed worker is still out of a job for 36 weeks — more than 20 weeks longer than prerecession levels — and longer than the standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits most states offer. Florida is even less generous due to a shortsighted initiative pushed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011. Florida benefits range from 12 to 23 weeks based on the state's unemployment rate. This year, Floridians qualify for up to 19 weeks of benefits, a short time frame that has been cushioned by the additional 27.2 weeks of emergency federal benefits.
If the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is not renewed by Congress, 1.3 million people will be abruptly cut off in the week between Christmas and New Year's. Next year that number will grow to nearly 5 million people shut out of income support, including 260,400 in Florida. Such policy is disruptive to families — unemployment compensation allows families to stay in their homes and maintain stability while looking for work. Benefits also stabilize the economy. Estimates are that without the federal unemployment benefits flowing, an estimated 240,000 jobs will be lost, more than 10,000 of those in Florida.
Extending unemployment benefits does not encourage malingering and joblessness, despite what congressional Republicans claim. Society gains when workers are given the ability to look for a job commensurate with their skills and experience — which was the point of unemployment insurance. A laid-off mid level executive who isn't so financially desperate that he takes a job as a restaurant dishwasher can find a better-paying job. Then his family won't need public assistance. And he can return to the ranks of being a contributing taxpayer sooner.
Extending unemployment keeps Americans out of poverty. Though the benefits are modest, an average of about $300 per week nationally and $232 per week in Florida, they are enough to keep families afloat. Shut the program down and the need will simply shift to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and other government safety net programs for the poor.
Florida's unemployment rate of 6.7 percent is still high. Unemployed workers outnumber available jobs in every industry. Ending federal benefits would harm the state and Florida families.