Congress rejects extension of jobless benefits
By Lee Sustar | October 25, 2002 | Page 16
WALL STREET was counting its money last week during one of the biggest stock-market surges in decades. But the mood was altogether different at the unemployment office on West Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, where laid-off workers applying for benefits October 18 were coping with the worst long-term jobless rate in two decades.
One woman summed up the source of her problems in a single word. "Worldcom," said Carol, who was laid off from the bankrupt telecommunications giant a week earlier. Thousands of Worldcom workers got pink slips, while executives--crooked and otherwise--walked off with $9.1 billion.
"They don't have to pay any consequences," she said. "I had only been there a little over a year. And it was a tough time trying to find that job. It's going to be a tough time trying to find another one."
Government statistics show that millions of laid-off workers have faced the same situation during the current weak economic recovery, as job creation flat-lined. One of them is Frank Guardino, a laid-off member of International Brotherhood of Painters Local 147 in Chicago. "I've been a union painter since 1980, and this is the worst," Guardino told Socialist Worker. "We usually don't get slow until Christmas. But this year, it's been slow all along. People are driving cabs and doing anything it takes to get by."
Since unemployment began rising two years ago, the average time it takes an out-of-work person to find a job jumped by five weeks--to 17.8 weeks. As of September, some 1.6 million people have been jobless for six or more months--almost double the number from a year earlier. According to economist Jeff Madrick, 2 million unemployed workers will exhaust their benefits by year's end, and 200,000 more will run out in every month that follows.
But that didn't stop congressional Republicans from voting down a bill October 16 that would have allowed an extension of unemployment in all states and boosted the minimum wage by $1.50 an hour.
The Republicans claimed that the job situation was improving because unemployment levels decreased by 0.1 percent in September to 5.6 percent. But this was statistically meaningless--payrolls actually shrank by 43,000 jobs. And the official unemployment figures don't include 387,000 "discouraged workers" who have stopped looking for work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 4.2 million people who would like to work full time have been forced to accept part-time positions.
Time magazine reported that a record 43 percent of the unemployed are former managers or professionals. But the hardest hit are workers with less than a high school education, who have a jobless rate of 7.8 percent, and young workers aged 16 to 24, for whom unemployment is 11.8 percent. African American workers face a jobless rate of 9.6 percent--nearly double that of white workers.
Yet even these grim statistics don't tell the whole story. Economists estimate that if the U.S. prison population hadn't grown so explosively over the last 20 years, unemployment would be higher by half a percentage point or more. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, some 2 million workers are simply "missing" from the labor market.
With the wobbly economy, tens of millions of workers live in fear that they could be next to lose their jobs. Many won't even be eligible for unemployment benefits. Because of changes in the labor market, just 39 percent of U.S. workers even qualify.
The elimination of decent jobs with benefits has also contributed to an increase of 1.4 million in the number of those who lacked health insurance last year. And the Census Bureau reported that in 2001, some 1.3 million more workers fell into poverty.
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration's only response to this emergency has been to propose more tax cuts for the wealthy, while spending enormous amounts on the military. Even House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) proposed Republican-style tax cuts as part of the Democrats' alternative.
What's needed is massive increases in benefits and social spending--and the superrich CEOs who cashed in during the 1990s can well afford to pay the taxes to fund them. But no politician will promise any such changes in the run-up to the November 5 elections. That's why we'll have to organize to fight for jobs and a decent living.