Frustrated by stubbornly high unemployment rates, particularly among African Americans who represent their core constituency in districts still devastated by recession, Congressional Black Caucus Members Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) re-introduced their legislation extending new benefits to individuals who have exhausted all 99 weeks of their unemployment insurance.
Focused on the so-called “99ers,” the Lee-Scott bill seeks to provide an additional 14 retroactive weeks of unemployment insurance at an estimated cost of $16 billion to those who have completely exhausted their insurance and continue struggling to find work.
The bill is titled the “Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 2011” and seeks to somehow put a dent in jobless rates that are still hampering an economy that economists and government officials suggest is in recovery. Yet, joblessness is still at its highest in years, at an official 9.0% and housing foreclosures are still occurring at a record pace.
If passed, not only would the law provide 14 additional weeks of unemployment insurance, but it would also look to identify the “chronically unemployed.” However, the additional Tier 5 of benefits would be applied to those who would run out of benefits this year and is similar to what was passed and implemented in late 2009 as an extra cushion. And, as part of a controversial law which passed late in 2010, the Obama Administration authorized another 13 months of unemployment insurance as part of a $850 billion compromise with Senate Republicans that secured a substantial tax cut in return.
“Millions of workers are in a true state of emergency [and] are in financial ruin,” said Lee during a press conference on Capitol Hill this week. Lee was CBC Chair up until her term expired in December 2010 and Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) took over. “[They] deserve to live the American dream.”
With American 99ers Union co-founder Greg Rosen and other 99ers at the event, Scott emphasized that the vast majority of unemployed individuals are interested in “a hand up not a hand out.”
“They want a job,” insisted Scott.
“Passing this bill will save American lives, assist in rebuilding the American economy, and get Americans back to work,” said Rosen, himself an unemployed former marketing executive. “This vital piece of legislation needs to be enacted into law without delay.”
Also present was Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), especially pointed in her remarks and accusing the government of a double standard in applying help – or the lack thereof – to unemployed workers. “How can we allow the working Americans to go without incomes when it is with no fault of their own that they cannot find a job, when we couldn’t let the Wall Street barons go without their golden parachutes,” argued Jackson-Lee. The Texas Congresswoman also plans to introduce separate legislation addressing the unemployment insurance issue.
According to the Congressional Research Service, there are approximately 1.4 million long term unemployed individuals who meet the designation of “99er,” considerably less than many estimates ranging from 4 to 7 million. The number, while high, only accounts for less than 1% of the national workforce, thereby worrying some advocates that it may be too low to spur Congressional action on the issue. However, there is the larger number of long-term unemployment of 6.4 million, or those individuals who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. Caucus Members, likewise, argue that there is a larger population that has stopped looking for work altogether due to a tough job market, including individuals who are no longer being counted by government estimates.
Advocates argue that as the recession of high joblessness continues, the range of workers still collecting benefits during this last year could be the next massive group of “99ers.” Passing a new 14 week extension could help diminish the impact of that new round of workers exhausting benefits.
But, observers say that any legislation to push new benefits for “99ers” is likely not to pass in the current political environment, as Congressional Republicans and budget hawks seek to make drastic spending cuts in domestic programs. In a recent interview with the Examiner.com, White House Council of Economic Advisers Chair Austin Goolsbee was equally grim about the legislation’s prospects, pointing to a lack of political will or fiscal fortitude on the part of Congress.
“I don’t think there has been much sentiment in Congress to extend unemployment beyond 99 weeks, unfortunately,” admitted Goolsbee, referring to the situation of 99ers as “really heartbreaking.”
“There are five workers looking for work for every job opening,” he added without offering any indication of the President’s likely support for such legislation. Goolsbee noted that the overall solution is to “get the job engine running.”