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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin: “Congress has an Obligation to Restore Federal Unemployment Insurance”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a statement submitted today to the Congressional Record, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said that Congress has a duty to restore federal unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who lost those benefits when they expired on December 28.  He added that without Congressional action this year, another 3.6 million Americans will be cut off from unemployment insurance as they exhaust their state benefits and have nowhere else to turn. Harkin called on the Senate to quickly restore the federal unemployment insurance program to give millions of families the help they need.

The full text of Harkin’s statement, as submitted to the Congressional Record, is as follows.

“We have the opportunity today to take care of some very important unfinished business.  We left town last year without ensuring that millions of American jobseekers could retain access to vital unemployment insurance.  I hope we correct this and restore the federal unemployment program, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was allowed to expire on December 28.

“Unemployment insurance has helped tens of millions of Americans weather the storm of the difficult economy over the last several years.  It has helped workers put food on the table, kept a roof over their heads, and kept millions out of poverty.

“But because Congress has so far failed to extend it, 1.3 million Americans were abruptly cut off from their vital unemployment insurance the week after Christmas.  And over the course of this year, another 3.6 million Americans will be cut off from unemployment insurance as they exhaust their state benefits and have nowhere else to turn.  That’s a total of 4.9 million Americans—including 35,500 Iowans. They have spent 6 months or more trying to find new work, going out and pounding the pavement day after day, but must now worry about how they and their families and children are going to survive.  How will they keep up with their heating bill, their rent, their car payment, or their mortgage?

“We used to all agree here in Washington that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work.  The American people certainly agree.  A poll released last week shows that 55 percent of voters say that Congress should act to maintain the program.

“Unfortunately, some people in this chamber seem to think that the misfortune of losing a job means that these hardworking folks are to blame, or that they don’t deserve this basic lifeline.  Some here in the Senate have even called it a ‘disservice’ to continue this program.  That kind of harshness toward people who are trying to do the right thing but who are victims of circumstance is simply wrong.

“Jobseekers are not sitting around watching TV and collecting compensation they don’t deserve.  In fact, participation in the unemployment insurance program requires that workers have a significant work history – which means they have paid into the system and earned this insurance.  Collecting on the insurance also requires workers to have lost their job through no fault of their own, and to be actively looking for work.  Participants in the program are playing by the rules.  It is now our responsibility to make sure that workers who are out of luck in this economy have some basic income to make ends meet.

“The fact is times are still tough and jobs are hard to come by.  For every job opening there are three job seekers.  That is why so many millions of workers have been searching for new work for such a long time.  The American people know this, too—in last week’s poll, 57 percent of voters said that the unemployed “would rather work, but cannot find a job in today’s economy.”

Although the payments under the federal program were modest—after cuts due to sequestration, payments averaged just $269 per week—these funds were crucial for keeping households afloat.  For many, this is their last lifeline.  If Congress fails to restore the federal program, millions of people will face real economic devastation.

“Also, we have to remember that unemployment insurance is not just a lifeline for families, but for our economy as a whole.  After all, one of the best ways to grow our economy and to create jobs is to support spending power.  And that is exactly what unemployment insurance does.  When unemployed workers can continue to pay their bills, businesses can continue to make sales and provide services, and the economy grows.  The Congressional Budget Office has found that unemployment insurance is one of the most efficient policy tools we have to improve economic growth.  If the federal unemployment insurance program is restored and extended through 2014, it will increase GDP by 0.2 percent and create 200,000 jobs.  Those jobs will be lost if we do not act.

“Congress has a long history of acting to ensure basic security for working people during tough economic times.  In the past, when the job market was this challenging, politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed that the federal government had an obligation to step in and help the long-term unemployed while they are struggling to find a work.  Indeed, the current program of extended unemployment benefits was put in place in 2008 by President George W. Bush when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.  While unemployment is falling, it is still at a high rate, 7.0 percent.  And that’s just the official rate.  Unofficially, when we include those folks who want to work full-time but can only find part-time work and those who have given up actively looking for work, the rate is actually 13.2 percent.

“Long-term unemployment has been at record highs for years.  Currently 37 percent of unemployed workers have been looking for new work for at least six months.  Congress has never allowed federal unemployment insurance to expire when more than 23 percent of unemployed workers were long-term unemployed.

“Our economy is recovering, but we are not there yet.  American jobseekers and their families still need federal unemployment insurance.  Our economy needs these families to have some basic means of survival. There is no justification for not restoring the current program.  This is a modest, short-term extension of three months.  I would prefer to see us approve a year-long extension, so that families who rely on the program have peace of mind that they will not be cut off from this lifeline again.  But I am pleased that Senator Heller has joined with Senator Reed, myself, and others to put forward this proposal.

“Congress has an obligation to restore and continue the federal unemployment insurance program to ensure that Americans and their families can survive while trying to get back on their feet and find new work.  They are depending on us.  I urge the Senate to act to restore the federal unemployment insurance program.”