In May 2012, Richard Crowe was laid off when the steel mill where he had worked for thirty-four years was shut down. He’d worked there since graduating from high school. New ownership filed for bankruptcy.
“The judge threw the workers’ contract out, the owners walked away with $20 million, and we got nothing,” says Crowe, who is 54, and lives in eastern Ohio.
Seven months later, Crowe is one of 5 million “long-term” unemployed workers in the United States who have been looking for work for more than six months. They are disproportionately older (over 50), women, and minorities, and according to today’s jobs report, their employment prospects haven’t much improved.
If Congress doesn’t extend the unemployment insurance program by the end of this year, 2 million of these workers will lose their benefits between Christmas and New Years Day, another 1 million by April 2013 and more than 5 million people will be without benefits by the end of 2013, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). This would occur at a moment when there are still 12 million people unemployed, and there are approximately 3.4 unemployed applicants for every available job opening.
“The jobs are still not there,” says Edith Harrison, 59, who lives in Colorado Springs and was laid off from her job at a senior assisted living facility in August. “How can you cut unemployment benefits off, and blame someone for not being able to get a job, when they didn’t create the situation?”
The anti-poverty effect of unemployment insurance is significant and undeniable. In 2010, the program lifted 3.2 million people above the poverty line (less than $18,000 for a family of three). In 2011, it lifted 2.3 million people above the line, including 620,000 children. (The program had less of a poverty reducing effect last year in part because a provision in the Recovery Act that paid an additional $25 per week in benefits was allowed to expire.) The average benefit is just $291 per week and it covers approximately 40 percent of a typical family’s food, housing and transportation costs.
What is most egregious to both Harrison and Crowe is the stereotype—voiced by people who want to cut the program or drug test benefit recipients—that unemployed people are lazy and would rather collect modest benefits than work.
“It’s funny, but it’s pathetic—a lot of people think you’re out here for a handout,” says Crowe. “I worked all my life. I paid into unemployment, I paid into Social Security, I paid into everything. I want off this unemployment, I want a job.”