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Congress lets benefits run out
Jobless cut off for Christmas

By Lee Sustar | December 6, 2002 | Page 12

SOME 800,000 of the long-term jobless will lose their unemployment benefits three days after Christmas--and 95,000 more will be cut off in each week after. That's the result of House Republicans' refusal to reconcile their legislation to extend benefits with a version passed by the Senate, which was still under control of the Democrats in last month's lame-duck session.

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota slammed the Republicans for their Scrooge-like behavior. But Daschle and the Democrats could have blocked Bush's demands for legislation to create the new Department of Homeland Security unless the extended benefits bill passed. Instead, the Democrats caved on Bush's Big Brother law--in spite of a string of outrageous proposals tacked on at the last minute.

Politicians of both parties promised to take up jobless benefits when the new Congress convenes in January. But as the Los Angeles Times noted, "[T]here is considerable sentiment, especially among House Republicans, that there is no more need for the extra aid."

The opposite is true. While unemployment has dropped to 5.7 percent from its recent of high of 6 percent, slow economic growth means that joblessness could rise to 6.5 percent next year, according to Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute.

Already, some 8.1 million people remain jobless--and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployed person must endure 17 weeks without a job. And 1 in 5 of the unemployed has been out of work for at least six months--the highest level since 1994.

Indeed, the 800,000 whose benefits will expire December 28 had already resorted to a 13-week, federally funded extension of benefits after their initial, state-funded 26-week period ran out. That puts millions at risk of losing their cars, homes and other possessions, since the average unemployment check covers just 46 percent of income.

And because states have tightened requirements to qualify for unemployment, only 44 percent of the jobless are collecting benefits at all--compared to 75 percent in the mid-1970s. That's because workers who failed to work enough hours or earn enough money don't qualify in many states--while others are considered independent contractors who are self-employed.

But George W. Bush wanted to use the December 28 benefit cutoff to further undermine the ramshackle unemployment insurance system. White House officials are promising an "innovative, new approach"--reportedly an effort to shift the cost of the system to the states. With states facing a combined budget deficit of $50 billion--the worst in decades--that would inevitably mean more hardship for the jobless.

If Bush has his way, a long spell of joblessness could plunge millions of workers into poverty. We need to demand that unemployment benefits be extended and eligibility expanded so that all the jobless get the assistance they need. With Corporate America grinding out more layoffs, it's time to organize a real fight for jobs.

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