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
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT