June 29, 2010

Jobs missing, not motivation

As America continues to recover from the Great Recession, millions of people remain out of work through no fault of their own – including more than 71,000 people in my home state of Rhode Island.

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 earlier this month, and Senate Republicans are obstructing further assistance – coldly contending it is too costly.

This is unacceptable.

Senate Republicans have argued in recent days that if we cut off people’s unemployment insurance, they will be motivated to get back to work. If only it were that simple.

The unemployment rate in Rhode Island 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.

The unemployed Rhode Islanders whom I’ve heard from desperately want to get back to work, but jobs just aren’t there. They don’t need any additional motivation – they need jobs.

Republicans have also argued that we can’t extend this important safety net because of concerns about our national debt. Some of these are the same Republicans who supported eight wild years of debt by the Bush administration.

President Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with a budget surplus and the nation on an economic trajectory that would have made it debt free by 2009. But the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress quickly squandered those surpluses through tax cuts for the wealthy, a prescription drug program designed by the pharmaceutical industry and a war in Iraq that was not paid for.

By the time President George W. Bush left office, he had managed to amass $9 trillion in lost surpluses and new debt. He left behind an economy losing close to 700,000 jobs every month. Our country required wide-scale spending to stave off an economic collapse.

Unemployment insurance has played a crucial part in preventing economic disaster for people like Bill, from North Kingstown, R.I. Bill, age 57, used to do sales work for a technology company. But his company was forced to lay him off as a result of budget cuts.

He has now been unemployed since January 2009. Bill has already faced eviction twice because of lapses in unemployment benefits and is worried about facing that prospect once more.

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

This money immediately goes back into the economy, helping fuel the recovery and ensuring that we don’t slide back into recession.

Unemployment checks turn right around – paying for prescriptions at the local pharmacy or food from the grocery store. Small businesses throughout the country benefit from the increased spending generated by unemployment insurance, and that helps them start hiring again.

We should extend emergency unemployment insurance programs through at least the end of this year. I would hope that my Republican colleagues – who were more than willing to run up record deficits to provide tax breaks to the rich – would also be willing to help Americans who are struggling to stay afloat in this tough economy.

By: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse