On Unemployment: Washington Behaving Badly

By: Hugh B. Price


National Urban League

317,100 in California. 213,100 in Texas. 176,900 in New York State. 93,200 in Florida. 88,300 in Pennsylvania.

Remember those numbers and get ready, America, for the spreading economic—and human—pain within our borders as Americans who recently did work and want to continue to work but can't find work have the last shred of the nation's tattered safety net yanked out from under them.

These numbers, and tens of thousands more in every state, represent the number of jobless Americans who in the next five months will very likely use up their federal unemployment benefits.

They'll use them up because Congress adjourned last week without extending the temporary federal program granting extra weeks of benefits to jobless workers who need them past December 28.

This is how the grim arithmetic goes, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the liberal, Washington-based think tank:

Beginning last month and continuing through December 28, 610,000 workers will have used up their temporary extended benefits without having found a job.

On December 29, since the temporary extension program will have ceased, another 820,000 workers now getting extended benefits but who won't have gotten their full 13 weeks' worth of them, will be cut off.

In January and February an additional 810,000 jobless workers will use up their regular, state-funded unemployment benefits. Since the temporary federal extension program will have ended, they'll be completely bereft of aid, too.

All these jobless workers cut off from government aid of any kind will be in addition to the nearly 900,000 American workers who've already exhausted their extended benefits.

Thus, by next March, the total figure could be as high as 3 million people, and growing, since—given the near-certainty that the nation's economic recovery will continue to occur without producing substantial numbers of jobs—more and more Americans will be exhausting their state unemployment benefits into the spring and summer.

This tragedy in the making forms the other, and much sadder, backdrop to President Bush's signing this week of legislation bringing into being the giant Homeland Security Department.

Last week Congress passed the bill the president described as critical to better protecting America's home front from terrorist attack, and then adjourned in a self-lit glow of satisfaction over having attended to the nation's security concerns.

But the Congress and the Bush Administration only attended to half their responsibility.

They left the other “homeland security” measure—the one extending the temporary federal unemployment benefits program—gathering dust on their desks while they spoke smartly about Americans standing fast against the threat of terrorism.

What do you do now if you've been out of work past the limit for even extended benefits but can't find work and have used up your unemployment benefits?

How robustly can you stand fast against the threat of terrorism when you no longer have the fundamental activity—work—that ties human beings to their society, and when your only resources become the community food pantry and the public or private homeless shelter, or the park bench, or the steps of a church that still remembers what the word “compassion” means?

These aren't theoretical questions to be plugged into some econometrics model for a run on the computer. This grim reality of resources depleted, eviction and foreclosure notices served, and individual and family lives shattered by the descent into dire poverty is facing millions of our fellow Americans.

The Congress—specifically, the House of Representatives, since the Senate did approve an extension of the temporary measure—in its wisdom did not feel it a sufficiently urgent matter to address the questions.

House Republican leaders “promised” to do so when Congress returns to Washington after the holidays—in 2003.

In other words, Washington's message to all those jobless Americans who still have bills for the necessities of life looming but are at the end of their unemployment benefits: eat cake for the next couple of months.

Several weeks ago, in a column discussing data showing the nation's widening economic inequality that has underscored the economic pain lacerating the poor and newly jobless, I wrote that this combination of negative economic forces threatens to undermine the belief that a rough equality of spirit and opportunity and fairness of treatment under law exists among us Americans.

I added that the value of this historic vision of an American society which promised a robust upward mobility for all those willing to work for it could not be calculated—that it was priceless.

Now, I'm beginning to think I was wrong.

Washington's unwillingness to come to the aid of Americans facing a grim immediate future may show us just how much that old, benevolent vision is worth.

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