Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, argues that it is too soon to reduce unemployment benefits when there are six workers for every available job. To do so will only send more people into destitution and hurt the economic recovery.
LAST week, the Times editorial board called for a reduction of unemployment benefits, from their current level — in many states, including Washington, now 99 weeks — to 46 weeks [“It’s time to reduce unemployment benefit,” June 4]. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard this proposal, but I am disappointed to hear it from my hometown newspaper.
In a normal economy — with unemployment in the 4-to-5-percent range — most people qualify for 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. When the present deep recession hit in 2008 and millions of people lost their jobs, Congress responded to the heightened need for emergency assistance to jobless workers by increasing the level and duration of benefits available to them. I’m proud that as the chairman of the congressional subcommittee that oversees the unemployment insurance system, I authored and championed several pieces of legislation to extend unemployment benefits to 99 weeks.
The Times contends that ending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is justified by evidence that unemployment benefits dissuade recipients from actively seeking work. But we need to look more closely at the research to understand that work-disincentive effects of jobless benefits are very small when unemployment is high. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office notes that concern about disincentives to find work is “less of a factor when employment opportunities are expected to be limited for some time.”
Despite the Times cheery prediction that “next year there will be more jobs,” most economists recognize that the unemployment rate in the United States is not going to plummet magically in the next several months. For millions of skilled, willing American workers who cannot find jobs, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is a lifeline.
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On average, unemployment benefits provide less than half of a worker’s former wages, so there is plenty of reason to look for work. But there are now nearly six unemployed workers for every available job — part of the reason it is taking so long for many people in Washington and around the country to find work.
Maintaining that unemployment insurance is preventing people from looking for work is a slap in the face to the millions of workers who’ve diligently sought work over the last two years only to be repeatedly rejected because of fierce and unprecedented competition and an economy in shambles. People who have lost their jobs are rattled by uncertainty and anxiety about the future; they face the daily fear that they might lose their homes or fail to provide food for their families. The Times’ implication that being unemployed is somehow desirable or convenient is absurd.
The public understands this: Nearly three-fourths of Americans in a recent survey agreed that “With unemployment close to 10 percent and millions still out of work, it is too early to start cutting back benefits and health coverage for workers who lost their jobs.”
A few months of employment gains, as welcome as they are, do not eliminate long-term unemployment. As a nation, we have to create more than 10 million jobs just to restore the labor market we had before the recession. Under the best of circumstances, that process will take several years. Meanwhile, we have record long-term unemployment, with 46 percent of jobless workers unemployed for more than six months.
Cutting benefits for millions of people won’t solve that problem. It will only drive more Americans into destitution while choking our economic recovery by reducing consumption of everything from bread to shoes. Starving jobless workers will not spur them to find nonexistent jobs. And balancing the budget on the backs of the unemployed is hardly the kind of thoughtful deficit reduction we need.
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat, represents Washington’s 7th Congressional District.