US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

In Senate Floor Speech, Harkin Reads from Iowa Letters to Urge Extension of Unemployment Benefits

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

*As Prepared for Delivery*

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today delivered a statement on the floor of the U.S. Senate calling for Congress to extend unemployment benefits.  On Thursday, Harkin will convene a HELP Committee hearing to hear from Americans facing long-term unemployment, and examine the barriers and challenges they face in finding reemployment.  

“There are 13 million unemployed Americans right now,” said Harkin.  “They are desperately looking for any job they can find, and many are relying on unemployment benefits to put food on the table.  Six million Americans will be cut off from this last lifeline if Congress does not renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.  I hope no one in this body, on either side of the aisle, would say that they deserve this additional hardship, especially during the holiday season.  

“There are real people and real families behind these numbers.  These are our friends and neighbors.  I have heard from so many of these hardworking people – from my home state of Iowa and across the country.  Their stories are heartbreaking.”

Following is the full text of his remarks, as prepared for delivery.

“Mr. President, I rise to speak today about the most important job that faces the Senate in the remainder of the year, and that is extending unemployment benefits for the millions of unemployed Americans who are struggling to find work.  

“Now, I wish I didn’t have to be down here talking about this today.  I wish it weren’t necessary to debate whether we should continue the federal unemployment insurance program.  I wish everyone in this chamber would acknowledge that the recovery is still a work in progress, and agree about the critical need to continue to support struggling workers and communities.  We have never failed to extend benefits in the past when unemployment was this high.

“But, unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, even the most commonsense policies can turn into political footballs, and the unemployment insurance program is no exception.  The extreme right is on the attack, blaming the victims who have been hardest hit by this economic crisis.  In the same breath that they push for more cuts in corporate taxes, Republican leaders argue that we can’t afford to extend unemployment benefits for people who are struggling to find a job.  Michelle Bachmann recently went so far as to say: “if anyone will not work, neither should he eat.

“In an economy where there are four unemployed workers for every available job, the cruelty of that comment is astonishing.  There are 13 million unemployed Americans right now.  They are desperately looking for any job they can find, and many are relying on unemployment benefits to put food on the table.  Six million Americans will be cut off from this last lifeline if Congress does not renew jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.  I hope no one in this body, on either side of the aisle, would say that they deserve this additional hardship, especially during the holiday season.  

“There are real people and real families behind these numbers.  These are our friends and neighbors.  I have heard from so many of these hardworking people – from my home state of Iowa and across the country.  Their stories are heartbreaking.

“A woman from Des Moines writes:

I was laid off in July 2011. I recently attended a class at the unemployment office in Des Moines where I was informed that my unemployment will cease as of 12/31/2011 if any extensions that are currently in place are discontinued. The average person is currently unemployed for 40 weeks, which is much longer than the 26 weeks that is available [without] any extensions. I was the main breadwinner in our family and if my unemployment would cease before I find a job, we would be forced to be on welfare, food stamps and other government subsidies. We would also lose our home.

I hope that you consider the many other people that are probably in the same situation as I am and hope that you will keep the current extensions in place. Thank you.

“A woman from Stanton, Iowa, writes:

I lost a great job in June of 2010 and have been receiving unemployment benefits since then. ….. If not for the unemployment [benefits], I don't know how we would make it. I continue to look for a better paying job but as you probably know, Montgomery County, Iowa has had the highest unemployment rate in Iowa. It's been tough.... Will appreciate your support in extending unemployment benefits as I continue my quest for a new position.

“Mr. President, the main reason that folks need their benefits to continue is that they simply cannot find new work, even after exhausting their benefits.  There are simply not enough jobs in this struggling economy.   How can we even think about abruptly terminating these benefits right now, cutting off the last lifeline to Americans in dire need?

“A man from Estherville, Iowa, writes:

I woke up last week to find my benefits exhausted but no closer to finding a job. I do everything possible to find work but nothing materializes. Age-discrimination is rampant and there is nothing an individual can do about it. …. Right now, after working since I was 12, I'm facing hunger and homelessness at 57-years old.

“A man from West Des Moines writes:

I'm a home designer/architect and have been laid off 3 times since 2007, after working almost 16 years at one firm. I have now decided to go back to school to try to find a different career in Information Technology. I hate not having a job, and want to work but there's just not anything out there in Architecture. Everyone seems to have circled the wagons and are not hiring. Please Help.

“And a woman from Madrid, Iowa, writes:

I lost my job (of 32 years) 2 1/2 years ago. I lived off my severance for the first year. Then savings and then went on unemployment. Now my unemployment has run out. I have had a few interview[s] without any luck. I have been working part time for minimum wage and I only get 15 hours a week in. It's the only job that I could find.

“Mr. President, this is just a sampling, but it’s clear that people want to work.  They desperately want to work.  Later this week, the committee that I chair, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, will hold a hearing to look at the reasons so many millions of workers who want to work are unable to get back to new jobs quickly.  We will hear from experts, workers, and community leaders about the barriers facing the long-term unemployed.  

“But there are some things we don’t need an expert to tell us.  We know people can’t find new jobs because there are so few jobs out there.  

“Right now there are more than 13 million people officially counted as actively looking for work, and that’s a dramatic understatement of the problem.  There are millions more people with part-time jobs who want full-time work; and millions more on top of that who have basically stopped looking for work because they think a job search will be fruitless—although they would take a job if they got one.   When we add them all up, we’re talking about nearly 28 million unemployed and underemployed people!

“And there are many other barriers to reemployment.  We know that older workers face unique challenges.  Not only have many of them gone through their retirement savings, many have lost the home they spent decades paying a mortgage on, and they have been unable to send their children to college.  On top of that, they face the indignity of being passed over in favor of younger workers simply because of their age.  

“That’s not to say that young workers are having an easy time in this job market.  I have also heard many stories of recent graduates—many with college degrees—who cannot find work, or are piecing together a meager existence on part-time service jobs that waste the time, effort, and money they poured into an expensive education.  

“Still other workers hear that they can’t be considered by certain employers because they have been unemployed for too long. This is so even when a recruiter tells them they are perfectly qualified for the job.

“More workers would like to move in order to take advantage of a new opportunity they have heard about elsewhere, but their house is underwater and can’t be sold.  Or they’ve been out of work so long, they have no money left to afford a move.  

“Still other workers have trouble with transportation or child care and other day-to-day issues that make it that much harder to get an employer to take a chance on them.

“These problems illustrate why the long-term unemployed who are working hard and playing by the rules still can’t get a job—because of factors beyond their control.  Rather than chastising the victims, we should be giving a hand-up to people in their hour of greatest need, and helping them to get back into the workforce.  

“This support is critical not only for the workers and families affected, but for our economy overall.  Research shows that for every $1 of unemployment benefits that are spent, $2 in economic activity is created.  This is because the money isn’t saved, it’s spent on essentials, helping businesses up and down Main Street in communities across the country.  In addition, if unemployment benefits are extended, we will save 560,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  

“By contrast, if we fail to renew these benefits, our economy will be deprived of many tens of billions of dollars in economic activity next year – and this will have a very real negative impact on overall gross domestic product.  So on the one hand, with benefits we are boosting our economy with a potent return on investment; but without benefits, we hurt our economy by shrinking consumer demand and destroying jobs.  

“So there is a strong economic case for renewing unemployment insurance.  But what about the human case for extending these benefits?  Where is our basic human compassion?  The thought of letting these benefits expire is unconscionable, especially during the Christmas season.  After looking for work for at least six months, but often more, many of these people already have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings – and now they are at risk of losing their last lifeline, the roughly $300 a week they receive in unemployment benefits.

“The bills don’t stop coming when someone loses his job.  The rent or mortgage, the electricity, and the car payment all have to be paid.  The family still has to buy food, gas, medicine, and school supplies.  Unemployment benefits are a lifeline for the millions of folks who are living without an income and just trying to survive.  These benefits kept more than 3 million people from falling into abject poverty last year.  

“Congress has a moral obligation to continue the federal unemployment insurance programs while the economy continues to slowly recover.  We cannot allow these benefits to expire.  We cannot allow millions of our friends, neighbors and relatives to sink into absolute poverty and desperation.  We cannot fail to take action, because that failure will result in families being put out on the street, children going to bed hungry, and families left to shiver in the cold of their unheated homes.  

“I urge my colleagues to vote on this matter as soon as possible..  During this holiday season, it is cruel to put millions of unemployed Americans in the position of wondering how they will survive after Dec. 31.  

“Mr. President, let us renew these benefits for another year.  And let us spend the next year doing everything we can to create jobs and provide employment to everyone who wants to work in this great nation.”


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