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Members of Congress Confused On the Basics of Unemployment Extensions

November 11, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

There are plenty of issues standing in the way of getting the unemployment extension done in the lame duck — lack of time, concerns over the deficit, political insecurity after the midterms, etc. Here’s one we can try to nip in the bud.


Do members of Congress and their staffers understand that if they don’t approve legislation to reauthorize federally-funded extended unemployment insurance by the end of November, two million layoff victims will prematurely stop receiving benefits during the holidays?

Apparently, many of them do not.

“We found ourselves over the weekend in a conversation with two public opinion analysts who were telling us that they didn’t think there was that much public support for this,” Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told HuffPost on Wednesday. “And they thought by ‘extend,’ what we meant, and what the administration is proposing… was to not let anybody ever go off the side and to just keep adding weeks, which is not what anybody is talking about at all.”

“They told us that they thought a number of members of Congress and their staff were similarly confused,” Greenstein said.

The confusion is between extending the current level of unemployment benefits and adding additional weeks of benefits. You can extend benefits without adding additional weeks, but you can’t add additional weeks without extending benefits. There are unemployed people who are advocating for both, but the only thing Democrats are actually trying to push through is an extension of the current level, not additional weeks.

The question that is likely to come before Congress next week in the lame duck session is whether to continue to allow people who lose their jobs to get a maximum of 99 or 76 weeks of benefits (depending on the unemployment rate of their state), or to let the extension die and only allow unemployed people to get a maximum of 26 weeks (the standard state-provided level). This has traditionally been an easy and obvious choice for Congress. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priority has outlined, “the highest unemployment rate at which federal unemployment benefits have ended in previous recessions was 7.2 percent.” The current unemployment is 9.6%, and it’s not expected to go down any time soon.

According to the Labor Department’s most recent report, the average duration of unemployment has risen to 34 weeks. That means that if Congress lets federal benefits expire, most unemployed people would exhaust their benefits months before finding a new job.

Recently, the “99ers” movement has been getting more media attention (rightfully so), and this is probably what’s confusing members of Congress. The 99ers are folks who have exhausted all of the benefits available to them without having found a job. There are somewhere between 3-5 million of them currently (there is no official estimate from the government), and they are about to ballon in numbers as we reach the two year anniversary of the explosion unemployment with no recovery having taken place. Congress needs to find a solution for this issue — either additional weeks of benefits (as proposed in S.3706) or some sort of jobs program or stimulus. If they don’t, and unemployment stays around 10%, expect an explosion in civic unrest. But this is not what’s on the table for the lame duck. Congress will be voting on the traditional proposal of extending benefits while the country is in what feels like a recession and unemployment is very high.

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