Congress should act quickly to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. If not, it will be responsible for cutting the lifeline for victims of the recession and for slowing the already too-slow economic recovery.
It really is quite simple. Desperate Americans existing on unemployment benefits generally roll that money right back into the economy. If they have fewer dollars to spend, the economy is more likely to continue its cycle of failure.
States offer unemployment insurance to laid-off workers for a maximum of 26 weeks, but during the last recession Congress passed an “emergency” program that provided four tiers of extended benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks. That program has been shrinking as the economy recovers.
But on Dec. 28, those emergency programs will end unless Congress renews them. If Congress does nothing, 1.3 million people nationwide will lose their benefits.
The ripple will affect 100,700 people in New York State. Department of Labor numbers show 4,970 people in Erie County and 1,270 in Niagara County at risk of losing their benefits, along with an additional 2,050 people in the other six counties of Western New York.
Another approximately 800,000 unemployed nationwide will lose their benefits in the first few months of 2014.
Such extended federal assistance was not intended to be permanent. But it was intended to help the unemployed until the economy generated enough jobs to drive down the unemployment rate, and that hasn’t happened yet.
Ending benefits will take hundreds of millions of dollars in spending out of the economy each week. And research has suggested that once benefits expire, many workers give up looking for employment. It will appear as if the labor market has improved, when it actually hasn’t.
Like any major program, there are people out there taking advantage of the system, preferring to cash a government check rather than really look for work. That doesn’t mean the vast majority should be punished for the actions of a few.
Right now, unemployment stands at 7 percent, the lowest rate since 2008 but still high by historic standards. Congress should consider the negative consequences that not extending unemployment benefits will have on the nation.
Perhaps the economy will make a solid turnaround and the employment picture will brighten. In the meantime, there is no justification for cutting off benefits millions of people depend on to get by.