Perfect Storm Threatens Long-Term Unemployed
In December, there were more than 13 million unemployed workers and about four people looking for work for every available job. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), 5.5 million people have been unemployed for more than half a year, up from 1.2 million in 2007, and the average duration for an unemployed person is over nine months.;
Courtesy Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative
“It is not, of course, that these millions of workers have become lazy, unskilled, or unproductive, it is that there are not enough jobs available,” writes EPI economist Heidi Shierholz. She notes that even new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco attributes increased duration in unemployment to “the severe and persistent weakness in aggregate demand for labor.”
So it’s particularly alarming to see Congress playing games with an extension of unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the month. Without an extension, more than one million Americans will be cut off in March, and more than 3.3 million by June 1.
“Instead of offering a hand up and rallying to help those who are most struggling, Republicans and perhaps some Democrats would like to drastically cut down on the maximum number of eligible weeks, and throw up roadblocks to stop many jobless people from getting any benefits at all,” says Debbie Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs.
Some of those roadblocks include stigmatizing drug tests and making people who lack a high school diploma or GED ineligible unless they enroll in classes—though Weinstein notes there are currently about 160,000 people on waiting lists for said classes and Republicans would like to see further cuts to those programs.
For millions of Americans, this isn’t a debate over some abstract benefits extension, it’s a debate over a lifeline.
In 2010, the federal emergency unemployment benefits currently being debated kept 3.2 million Americans from falling into poverty—less than $22,350 annually for a family of four. The unemployment insurance system as a whole kept 4.6 million people above the poverty line. Denying benefits now catches Americans at a particularly vulnerable moment. According to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, 27 percent of American households now live in “asset poverty”—meaning they do not have the savings or other assets to cover the basic expenses a poverty-level income would cover for just three months in the event of a layoff or other crisis. If you take away assets that can’t quickly be converted into cash—like a home, or car—that number jumps to a stunning 43 percent.