Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Extend jobless benefits in fragile recovery

After the sequester, fiscal cliffs and 16-day government shutdown, Congress is poised, through inaction, to deliver another blow to the nation’s economic recovery and a lump of coal to jobless workers.

If Congress does nothing, emergency federal unemployment benefits will expire for 1.3 million Americans, including 214,800 Californians, who have been looking for work for at least six months. This might be called, “How the Congress Stole Christmas” with a Seuss-like refrain: “You’re a mean one, Mr. Congressman … Your heart’s a dead tomato squashed with moldy purple spots.”

After a job loss, unemployment benefits normally go for six months. But with the Great Recession of 2007-09, Congress extended those benefits, as it has done in every recession since 1957 where unemployment has persisted.

These benefits have been phasing down, but the economy has not yet recovered – especially in much of the Central Valley, where unemployment remains in double digits.

After the 1981-82 recession, extensions passed under President Ronald Reagan lasted until June 1985. The Great Recession was much worse.

According to a Dec. 4 report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Labor Department, “In no prior case has Congress allowed special extended benefits to expire when the unemployment rate was as high as it is today.”

The California Budget Project estimated in September that the state may not recover the jobs lost due to the Great Recession until January 2016. In June, 31 percent of our state’s jobless workers had been looking for work at least a year.

Cutting these folks off just days after Christmas would be a cruel joke. These benefits average $305 a week for Californians whose 26 weeks of state-paid unemployment benefits have run out.

As the California Budget Project notes, “California’s recovery has disproportionately relied on low-wage service industries for job growth” and the value of the minimum wage has eroded.

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, has introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, HR 1010/S 460, which would increase the federal minimum wage from today’s $7.25 per hour to $8.20 immediately, $9.15 after one year and to $10.10 after two years. The Senate may vote on the bill this week.

This seems to be more controversial among lawmakers than among voters. A Gallup Poll last month found that 76 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage. In the face of federal inaction, state legislatures in California, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed minimum-wage increases this year, as did New Jersey voters.

The November jobs report was positive news going into the holiday season. Congress shouldn’t ruin it with a squeeze on unemployment benefits. As Dr. Seuss teaches, they might find their hearts grow three sizes larger.