July 18, 2010

It’s crucial to extend jobless benefits

Rhode Island businesses are working hard to recover from the Great Recession, but more than 71,000 people in the state remain unemployed through no fault of their own. Our unemployment rate now stands at 12.3 percent. It has been at more than 8 percent for nearly two years, at double digits for more than a year.

I hear from constituents all the time who are eager to get back to work, but the jobs simply are not there.

Through the recession and its aftermath, Congress has done the right thing and extended unemployment benefits to ensure that families can make ends meet during unusually long job searches. Unfortunately, these emergency programs expired at the beginning of June, and Senate Republicans have been blocking further extensions of these vital programs, asserting that unemployment benefits are a “disincentive” for people to find work.

For the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been out of work for many months, unemployment benefits are often their only source of income, the only way to pay the rent or mortgage and keep food on the family table.

The vast majority of unemployed workers in Rhode Island and throughout the country would gladly exchange these subsistence benefits for the dignity of a job; but the jobs just aren’t there.

Vice President Joe Biden frequently says that the longest walk a person can make is up the stairs to tell their children they lost their job. Well, every day, men and women come home from long days of searching for work and have to tell their waiting families that there wasn’t anything today either. And now Republicans not only want to cut the last leg out from under those families, they want to tell them that it’s because this basic support makes them lazy.

Republicans have also argued that we can’t extend this important safety net because of concerns about our national debt. We do need to address the national debt they ran up during the Bush years, but economic recovery will let us do so. And our economy won’t recover until Rhode Island families have money in their pockets to support local businesses and pay taxes. We need to create jobs, and we need to make sure that workers who can’t find jobs have some basic assistance.

Unemployment insurance has played a crucial part in preventing economic disaster for people like Sandy, in Warwick, who is 60. She has a background in accounting, but has now been unemployed for 13 months. Sandy has applied for about 100 jobs, but is still out of work. If Senate Republicans continue to filibuster unemployment benefits, Sandy will soon lose her only source of income.

As Sandy and other out-of-work Americans continue to search for good jobs, unemployment insurance helps them feed their families, pay the rent, put gas in the car and buy shoes for the kids.

Since this money immediately goes back into the economy, it helps fuel the recovery and ensures that we don’t slide deeper into recession. Unemployment checks are not large; people don’t save this money. They pay for the necessities, putting money directly back into the economy. Small businesses benefit from the increased spending generated by unemployment insurance, and that in turn helps them start hiring again.

We will keep working to extend emergency unemployment-insurance programs through at least the end of this year. I would hope that my Republican colleagues will decide to help Americans struggling to stay afloat in this tough economy.

By: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse