Weak Job Growth and Labor Force Decline Reinforce Need to Renew Federal Jobless Aid

WASHINGTON—Job gains were surprisingly weak in December, with the economy adding only 74,000 jobs as the nation’s long-term unemployment crisis showed no sign of abating.  The headline unemployment rate dipped to 6.7 percent, but that decline was largely the result of workers dropping out of the labor force.  Long-term unemployment remained near record highs, with 3.9 million workers, or nearly 38 percent of the unemployed, out of work for six months or more.

To make matters worse, Congress has taken away from struggling Americans the very program designed to help them get back on their feet.  Nearly 1.5 million long-term unemployed workers have already been cut off from federal jobless aid, and an additional 72,000 people are joining their ranks every week because lawmakers allowed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program to expire at the end of 2013.  Unemployment insurance for more than three million unemployed workers will be severed by the middle of 2014 if Congress fails to act.

“Any other man-made or natural disaster that inflicted this much damage—walloping an average of 10,000 people every day—would be a state of emergency, and we’d marshal all our resources in response,” said Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.  “Instead, Congress ended the year by turning its back on people who want to get back to work but can’t find jobs, and now is moving too slowly to restore the crucial unemployment insurance lifeline that millions of Americans urgently need to keep looking for work, pay their bills, and stay warm in the months ahead.  Today’s disappointing jobs report simply reinforces the urgency of renewing the federal EUC program.”

Finding work remains challenging for the long-term unemployed.  Nearly four million Americans have been unemployed for longer than six months, an unprecedented level three times greater than when the recession began.  The record-high levels have persisted for more than four years.  There are still three unemployed workers for every job opening, and the average duration of unemployment exceeds 37 weeks.

“The long-term unemployment crisis affects Americans of all political persuasions,” Owens said.  “The American people are strongly in favor of an extension—they understand the terrible hardships that unemployed family, friends, and neighbors are facing.”

A December NELP study shows how federal unemployment insurance keeps workers in the job hunt and families out of poverty.  And a clear majority of Americans recognize this effect, backing renewal of federal jobless aid for the long-term unemployed, according to a poll released last month by Hart Research.  But obstruction and delay by members of Congress continue to rule the day.  Attempts to achieve agreement on what appear to be modest, scaled-back compromise approaches to renew the program have been met with callous indifference.

A deal to renew EUC through mid-November fell apart in the Senate last night for reasons that must have left unemployed workers shaking their heads in disbelief.  Since mid-December, Republicans have said they would consider supporting EUC reauthorization if it were paid for, and earlier this week, they demanded reforms to the program.  Not only was the cost of the Senate deal fully offset, but it reduced the number of weeks available, a long-standing Republican request.  It also included a provision similar to one sought by Senator Robert Portman (R-OH) that would have eliminated potentially fraudulent receipt of unemployment benefits.  Notwithstanding apparent satisfaction of all their demands, the Republicans still blocked the bill, leaving nearly 1.5 million workers and their families without the crucial unemployment insurance lifeline they rely on.

“Congress needs to heed the will and common sense of the American people,” Owens said.  “It is time to stop playing games.  The Senate must act without further delay.  And, we urge Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor to add renewal of Emergency Unemployment Compensation to the list of must-do items the House will take up and pass in the very near future.”

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