Skip to main content

Don't pull plug on the long-term unemployed

By Christine Owens, Special to CNN
June 1, 2012 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT