Congress and the 99ersJuly 13, 2010 - by Donny Shaw
Michael Fletcher has a great piece in the Washington Post today about the 99ers — a rapidly-growing demographic of people who have been out of work for more than 99 weeks and have exhausted all of their extended unemployment insurance benefits:
Even before his unemployment checks ended, Dwight Michael Frazee’s days were filled with the pursuit of any idea that could earn him a buck. But few are working out, and now his nights are filled with dread.
In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to resume its debate about whether to extend the emergency jobless benefits that were passed in response to the steep increase in unemployment caused by the recession. But people like Frazee, who have suffered the longest in the downturn, will not be part of that conversation. They are among the 1.4 million workers who have been unemployed for at least 99 weeks, according to the Labor Department, reaching the limit for the insurance. Their numbers have grown sixfold in the past three years.
The 99ers are glaring examples of the nation’s most serious bout of long-term joblessness since the Great Depression. Nearly 46 percent of the country’s 14.6 million unemployed people have been out of work for more than six months, and forecasters project that the situation will not improve anytime soon. Currently, the Labor Department says there are nearly five unemployed people for every job opening.
The 99ers are the true victims of the jobless recovery. Yes, millions of people who have been out of work for months are struggling right now because Congress has let the extended benefits period expire, but a couple weeks from now that will be extended and those people will see their benefit payments return, including retroactive reimbursements for any payments that were put on hold. If they can find a job before the 99-weeks-max benefit period expires under the currently-pending extension (H.R. 5618) on November 30, 2010, in a sense, the system will have worked at helping them weather this crisis. But for those who are not able to find a job by then, they will join the ranks of the 99ers who, so far, have seen nothing but neglect from the people in charge of U.S. economic policy.
Not only are the 99ers not addressed in the current unemployment extension bill that is moving through the Senate, but of the approximately 10,000 bills that have been introduced in Congress over the past two years, not a single one of them is designed to help them. So far, there has been unanimous refusal among federal policymakers to face up to the fact that millions of people are being swept under the rug because of a crisis that was caused by government regulators and corporations. And let’s not pussfoot here — many of these people whose jobs were taken away are going to end up on the streets, and some will undoubtedly die as a direct result of the situation.
Ezra Klein explains from a policy perspective why 99ers need help in this crisis:
In a state with 9 percent unemployment — which means more like 20 percent underemployment — it’s very difficult to believe that unemployment benefits are providing a serious disincentive to work. You worry about unemployment benefits when the labor market is tight enough that people can find jobs. You don’t worry about them when there are tons of workers who need jobs, and very few jobs for them to get. Right now, there are about five workers for every one job. Unemployment insurance is not the problem here. That mismatch is. Endless unemployment insurance can be a problem when the labor market is ready to reabsorb the unemployed, but that’s not the world we’re in.
Nothing is going to happen for the 99ers unless they are organized and fighting. House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] has effectively said “no” to extending benefits beyond 99 weeks, and there are grumblings on Capitol Hill that the extension currently making its way through the Senate will be the last one, meaning there will be no extended benefits after November 30th. Moreover, the Republicans, who have been blocking the current extension for months in the Senate are expected to win a significant number of seats in the next session of Congress, which begins in January 2011. The Democrats have 59 Senate seats now. Come January, they will probably have only 52 or so.
The plight of the 99ers is generally overlooked, but make no mistake: this is where the real fight for the unemployed is taking place. The extension that is currently stuck in the Senate is virtually a done deal — it is expected to pass next week and be signed into law. But that will expire in November and economists are predicting that the unemployment rate is going to stay pretty much where it is through much of 2011. That means that millions of the people who are fighting for the extension in the Senate right now will be in a much worse situation just a few months down the line unless they somehow manage to get Congress to pay attention.