With 4 million Americans out of work for more than six months, long-term joblessness is a crisis.
Even now, four years after the official end of the Great Recession, that number is about 1 million higher than its previous peak, which was in the 1980s downturn. Yet Congress has not renewed the long-term jobless benefits program that supplements state programs and is set to expire Saturday.
This makes no sense. The extension should be the first order of business for Congress in the new year.
A yearlong extension would cost about $25 billion, but it's money that will be quickly spent — creating about 300,000 jobs, economists say, to help end the need for the benefit. Lawmakers worried about adding the tab to the national debt could easily pay for it by trimming needless tax subsidies to successful industries.
Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will take up the extension when the Senate returns in January. The House should do the same.
More than 1.3 million people will lose these federal benefits right away, and another 3.2 million are likely to lose them in 2014 as their state benefits expire. In California, about 215,000 people are about to lose benefits, nearly twice as many as in any other state. That's why Gov. Jerry Brown has called on Congress to reauthorize the benefits.
While the Bay Area's tech industry is leading the recovery, jobs are still scarce in much of the state.
Sen. Rand Paul spoke for many conservatives when he recently said he believed that providing unemployment benefits of around $300 a week to the long-term unemployed was “causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
While studies indicate that short-term unemployment benefits may cause some people to delay looking for a job, that isn't the case for long-term benefits. People who have worked hard all their lives cannot maintain their quality of life forever on unemployment.
The real problem is that there aren't enough jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 2.9 unemployed people for every job opening.
Others argue that when Congress first approved extended benefits, in 2008, they were supposed to be for a jobs emergency. Can it still be an emergency nearly five years later?
Without a doubt.
President George W. Bush signed the bill when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. Today, it's 7 percent — and it's only that low because so many people have stopped looking for work and dropped off the rolls.
In each of the past three recessions, Congress didn't cut off extended aid until the long-term unemployment rate dropped to 1.3 percent. Today it's 2.6 percent — precisely double, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The long-term unemployed face an extraordinarily difficult road. Employers are passing them over not because they are unqualified but because the very fact of their lengthy unemployment raises eyebrows.
Research from this recession and previous ones indicates that long-term unemployment is one of the worst things that can happen to families. It cuts workers off from social outlets, plunges them into poverty — sometimes permanently — and puts enormous stress on relationships.
Even many conservative economists believe the government isn't doing enough. Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, recommends a federal relocation assistance program so people can move to areas where jobs are available.
It's something conservatives often say people should do, but it's impossible, especially with a family, with no savings or income. Anybody who's relocated even for a guaranteed job knows that.
Programs like this would be great. But the very least Congress can do is extend benefits for the long-term unemployed.