Extend jobless aid

Renewing federal unemployment benefits must top Congress’ agenda when it returns this month


Shamefully, Congress adjourned for the year last month without renewing federal unemployment benefits for long-term jobless Americans. Because those extended benefits expired last weekend, about 1.3 million workers nationwide — including 39,000 across Ohio and more than 3,200 in metropolitan Toledo — are about to lose a lifeline.

Better late than never, President Obama and congressional Democrats say they want to return to the issue when lawmakers come back to Washington this month. But the House Republicans who blocked the benefits renewal in December do not appear ready to relent. Their position is not only heartless, but also bad for the nation’s economy.

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Before the extended federal benefits expired, workers previously qualified for that aid after they exhausted 26 weeks of state-paid benefits. In Ohio, those emergency benefits could last for as long as 37 weeks and typically amounted to about $300 a week.

The dire economic conditions that caused Congress to approve and fund extended benefits during the Great Recession have eased, but have not disappeared, certainly not in Ohio. The average length of unemployment nationwide now exceeds 37 weeks.

There are still three unemployed Americans for every vacant job. Congress has never before failed to renew extended benefits, during recessions or recoveries, when the long-term unemployment rate is as high as it is now, at 2.6 percent.

The political assertion that extended benefits discourage workers from looking for and accepting jobs is simply wrong. Instead, the emergency aid helps to keep long-term unemployed workers in the job market, while also keeping them and their families out of poverty and, potentially, homelessness.

Moreover, workers who receive the extended cash aid do not hoard it. They spend that money on necessities; it turns over in their communities, strengthening local economies such as Toledo’s and thus preserving jobs.

At 7 percent, the U.S. unemployment rate remains high. It is even higher in Ohio (7.4 percent) and higher still in the city of Toledo (8.6 percent). This is no time to punish workers who can’t find jobs that don’t exist, or to try to balance the federal budget on their backs. There are several credible proposals for covering the projected $19 billion cost of extending federal benefits for another year.

If the benefits are not renewed, as many as 88,000 Ohioans stand to lose them by mid-year, and about 128,600 by the end of 2014. That would represent a major drag on the state’s economy, as well as an avoidable human tragedy.

One of the least-productive sessions of Congress in the nation’s history left plenty of vital work undone in 2013. When lawmakers return this month, renewal of extended federal unemployment benefits needs to be at the top of their agenda.