One of the first orders of business in the lame-duck session of Congress later this month should be to extend federal unemployment benefits. By the end of the year, benefits will run out for 1.2 million Americans who will be left without an economic lifeline that averages about $300 per week. Republicans cannot defend resisting an unemployment benefits extension while insisting on extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans.
The modicum of good news on the jobs front Friday means that the weak economy is inching along in positive territory. Although the unemployment rate held steady at 9.6 percent, the private sector is adding jobs — more than 100,000 in each of the last four months — including 159,000 jobs in October. Still, as President Barack Obama bluntly noted, an encouraging jobs report "doesn't make a difference if you're still one of the millions of people" looking for work. There are still five people looking for every job available.
These stark numbers suggest that unemployment cannot be broadly blamed on a lack of effort to find work. There are simply not enough jobs, and many economists predict the economy will continue to grow at roughly 2 percent and fail to generate enough jobs for a robust recovery soon. Under these conditions, it is imperative that Congress help. States fund the first 26 weeks of benefits. That, combined with the federal emergency and extended jobless insurance programs, allows people in some high unemployment states, including Florida, a total of up to 99 weeks. The federal benefits are divided into four tiers. If no extension is passed by Nov. 30, people beyond the 26 weeks of state aid would lose their benefits at the end of whatever tier they are in at the moment.
In the summer, Republicans succeeded in derailing a jobless benefits extension for two months while lawmakers argued over how to pay for the $34 billion cost. Democrats consider jobless benefits emergency spending that may be added to the short-term deficit as an infusion of money into the economy. Republicans demand that the expenditure not be added to the deficit. Fine. Then they should identify specific cuts in the budget to pay for it, rather than let desperately needed benefits expire.
These modest payments allow people to stay in their homes while looking for a job, reducing disruptions in families and neighborhoods. And economists say that economic growth would be reduced by as much as 0.4 percent from December through February if federal jobless benefits are not extended.
Republicans claim that their objections are based on concerns over the deficit. But in the same breath they demand that those with incomes of $250,000 or more be included in a renewal of the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year. This will add $700 billion to the deficit over 10 years. So using their logic, deficit spending is fine to help the rich but not acceptable to help the jobless. Those priorities are upside down, and the president should insist on an extension of unemployment benefits before cutting any deals on extending the Bush tax cuts for all.