If you don’t have a job, you’re out of luck; even Democrats on Capitol Hill are joining the chorus of conservatives in opposing federal unemployment benefits for individuals facing over one year without work. It’s a shift that will likely have devastating implications for millions of Americans as soon as next January.
The irony of the situation is that America’s unemployment situation is the worst it has been in decades, with the nation’s jobless rate stuck just under 10 percent and the “real” unemployment rate — including those Americans that have simply stopped looking for work — at double that number.
But now a prominent Democrat is are joining conservative lawmakers in calling for an unprecedented cut in federal aid to the tens of millions of Americans that have lost their job in the ongoing recession, questioning whether anyone but “working folks” ought to receive the government’s helping hand.
Sen.Claire McCaskill (D-MO) voiced her skepticism over extending long-term unemployment benefits in an interview with a local Missouri television station. McCaskill is a moderate Democrat in a state where Republicans are surging, and she faces a tough reelection fight next year.
Possibly seeking to hone her credentials as an opponent of “government waste,” Sen. McCaskill declared she would not support an extension of federal unemployment benefits that will soon come up for a vote in Congress. Seeming to portray jobless Americans as not being “consumers” because they don’t work, McCaskill juxtaposed her opposition to a benefits extension with enthusiastic support for extending a payroll tax cut for “working folks” as it “helps our consuming economy.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is a top target for Republicans in 2012, voiced her opposition to extending unemployment benefits.
“I’m not for extending the unemployment benefits any further,” McCaskill said in an interview Tuesday with Missouri television station KMOV.
She added that she was for extending payroll tax cuts.
“I’m always for tax cuts for working folks because I think that helps our consuming economy,” McCaskill said.
Faced with a backlash once word leaked of the comments, Sen. McCaskill’s office responded with a statement that reaffirmed the senator’s “support for unemployment benefits” — but doubled down on her opposition to extending aid for those whose federal assistance will vanish in January.
“Claire continues to fully support unemployment benefits for people who have lost their jobs by no fault of their own as a result of the struggling economy,” McCaskill communications director Trevor Kincaid said. “This includes up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, expanding benefits beyond 99 weeks — as some suggest — is unaffordable and unrealistic because of staunch opposition in the House.”
Both extending federal unemployment benefits and extending the payroll tax cut are jobs-related priorities sought by President Obama. They face opposition in the Republican-controlled House where conservatives have balked at the price tag for sustaining protection for Americans without a job for over 99 weeks.
Further extensions of unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless will need all the congressional support they can get. The federal benefits, which can last up to 73 weeks for workers who exhaust the standard 26 weeks of state benefits, are scheduled to expire at the beginning of 2012. Republicans oppose keeping the benefits because of their significant cost to the government — as much as $60 billion a year.
President Obama has said he wants Congress to reauthorize the benefits and also a Social Security payroll tax cut, both of which were included in a December deal that preserved Bush-era tax cuts for two years. The unemployment benefits were included in the failed so-called Grand Bargain Obama crafted with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), but they were left out of the debt deal Congress passed earlier this month.
Under current law, people who’ve lost their jobs after July 1 are ineligible for extra weeks of benefits because their state aid will run out after the federal benefits expire in January. Nearly 4 million unemployed currently receive federal benefits.
Both McCaskill and GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who recently decried “pumping up” unemployment benefits and thought federal benefits should be cut because unemployed Americans “would rather have a job,” fail to understand the real plight of the jobless. Long-term unemployment is soaring in the wake of the recession, and the odds are increasingly stacked against out-of-work Americans seeking assistance or a new job.
There are nearly 300,000 unemployed in McCaskill’s home state of Missouri alone, where the jobless rate hovers around 9 percent. Many of them are receiving federal jobless aid after exhausting state benefits.
And while politicians and commentators continue to take shots at the unemployed, implying that those without work don’t want to find a job, the raw facts of the stagnant economy do not back up these insensitive conclusions. Employer discrimination against the unemployed is rising, contributing to a crisis of long-term joblessness where months-long “holes” in the resumes of jobless Americans are being used against them when they apply for work.
The rush to trim federal unemployment aid also comes at the worst possible time for the jobless, as states are getting a jump on Washington in dumping benefits. Six states so far this year have slashed the duration of jobless benefits below the 26-week standard across the country. Florida has gone the furthest, cutting unemployment assistance to as little as 12 weeks in many instances.
Despite the weak employment environment, six states so far this year have approved cutting jobless benefits to less than the 26-week duration that had prevailed for decades across the nation.
Until the recently-approved cuts, states have typically offered 26 weeks of benefits, with the exception of Montana, which offers 28 weeks, and Massachusetts, which offers 30 weeks. But tough financial problems are motivating states to look for savings.
Earlier this year, Florida approved reducing the maximum-benefits duration to a range of 12 to 23 weeks, effective Jan. 1, amounting to some of the “deepest and most sweeping cuts,” according to a recently released report from the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group. See NELP report. There will also be a reduction in employer taxes, among other changes to the state’s unemployment-compensation program.
“This new law will enhance the unemployment-compensation program’s efficiency for claimants, businesses and the state,” said Cynthia Lorenzo, director of Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation, in a statement. “Reform measures included in this legislation are projected to save our state more than $100 million annually, easing the tax burden on employers to help them expand and create jobs.”
Other states that have approved reduced benefits are Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina, which have cut their programs to 20 weeks. Arkansas and Illinois have cut the duration to 25 weeks.