Skip to main content

Don't pull plug on the long-term unemployed

By Christine Owens, Special to CNN
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Unemployment insurance is set to expire for the long-term unemployed
  • Christine Owens: Unemployment rate is so high, we cannot leave the hardest-hit behind
  • She says if measure of a nation is how it treats its unfortunate, we're looking into abyss
  • Owens: Congress can't allow what's left of unemployment insurance to expire

Editor's note: Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

(CNN) -- Anyone who has ever been unemployed understands that unemployment insurance is a lifeline for the jobless and their families. But that lifeline is now slipping away for the long-term unemployed, as cuts to federal unemployment extensions enacted by Congress earlier this year gradually take hold.

Since February, more than 400,000 workers in 25 states have lost access to the federal Extended Benefits program, which previously provided a final 13 to 20 weeks of unemployment insurance to the longest-term unemployed. Another 70,000 unemployed workers in New York, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., are on the chopping block for June. By the time the program is phased out in September, half a million workers in 35 states will have lost these crucial final weeks of unemployment insurance.

On top of that, the other federal unemployment extension program -- Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which currently helps 2.6 million Americans with 34 to 53 weeks of benefits — will be dramatically scaled back beginning in June. The retrenchment in this program will immediately harm workers in 24 states, and will reduce or cut off benefits for hundreds of thousands of jobless Americans over the rest of the year. Most alarmingly, those workers who lose jobs in July and thereafter may end up with no federal help if the program permanently expires at the end of the year as scheduled.

Christine Owens
Christine Owens

These figures don't even account for the millions of workers who have already run out of all state and federal unemployment insurance and still cannot find work.

The cuts to unemployment insurance are coming way faster than the rate at which the economy is improving. Newly released employment figures show that the U.S. added only 69,000 jobs in May, and the unemployment rate has risen to 8.2% from 8.1%. Jobs remain scarce, with more than three job seekers for every one opening.

Veterans face unemployment at home
Romney says he'll lower unemployment
Jobs report fuels political fire

But what distinguishes this last recession and its slow recovery is the unprecedented level of long-term unemployment. Of our nation's more than 12.7 million unemployed, more than 5 million -- 42% -- have been out of work for six months or longer. Nearly one in three have been out of work for more than a year. The average unemployed worker has been out of work for 39.7 weeks, or roughly nine months.

Most state unemployment insurance programs cover the first 26 weeks, or six months, of unemployment, normally enough time for the vast majority of unemployed to find new work. But this was no ordinary recession. With long-term unemployment so severe, Congress acted in 2009 to expand the federal unemployment programs, ultimately extending benefits to up to 99 weeks in the states with the highest unemployment rates.

Since then, the recession officially came to an end and the fledgling recovery has sputtered along, but long-term unemployment remains a problem that just won't go away. Congress and the administration seem hard-pressed to agree to do anything constructive about it, however. As the problem persisted, political scrapping about unemployment insurance has increased, and in February, Congress enacted a plan to dramatically scale back federal unemployment benefits, the consequences of which we are seeing now.

We are pulling the rug out from under the unemployed too soon, to the detriment of unemployed workers and their families. Never before has Congress cut back on extended unemployment insurance when the unemployment rate remains so high.

Today, less than half of the unemployed in this country are receiving unemployment insurance, and that percentage is decreasing rapidly. That puts more families at risk of falling into homelessness and poverty, and it means that one of the most effective forms of local economic stimulus isn't being used.

Opponents of extended unemployment insurance argue that it prolongs joblessness and becomes a disincentive for finding work. It's a false claim that seizes on unfair stereotypes and stigmas of the unemployed, in the classic vein of blaming and punishing the victim. In fact, research shows that unemployment insurance helps keep jobless workers attached to the labor market so that they're not dropping out and giving up. And as we know from real life, surviving on the average weekly benefit of $300 is hardly a picnic.

If the measure of a nation is how it treats its least fortunate, we are looking into the abyss. We need to think hard about whether we are prepared to relegate the long-term unemployed to the status of collateral damage in an economic catastrophe. If we are going to achieve a true recovery, we cannot leave the hardest-hit behind.

What can our leaders in Washington do? They need to provide meaningful jobs programs and hiring incentives that target the long-term unemployed. They need to make it unlawful to discriminate against the unemployed in hiring. And they need to make sure, as long as the number of unemployed remains so high, that workers have the minimal income support that unemployment insurance can provide to keep their families going until they find that next job.

We are not out of the woods. The recovery has eluded long-term unemployed Americans. For their sake, Congress must not allow what remains of federal unemployment insurance, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, to expire at the end of the year.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christine Owens.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT