CONGRESS TO JOBLESS: BAH HUMBUG!
                              By Dick Meister

The Christmas spirit. You have it, Iım sure. I have it. But the Republicans
who run Congress obviously do not have it.

The GOP Scrooges have arranged it so that just four days before the holiday
more than 2 million Americans will lose the unemployment benefits that have
sustained them while theyıve searched for work. They arenıt alone, either.
Every week after that, an expected 80,000 other desperate job seekers will
lose benefits.

At issue is the temporary program Congress passed in March of 2002 as part
of a stimulus package aimed at helping those who lost jobs in the severe
economic downturn that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The program,
renewed twice since then, made workers eligible for 13 to 26 weeks of
benefits beyond the previous 26-week limit.

Although the economy has improved in recent months, thereıs been only a
meager growth in jobs. Long-term unemployment remains a serious problem
unlikely to ease significantly in the foreseeable future.

Despite that, and even though thereıs $20 billion in the Unemployment
Compensation Fund earmarked solely for financing emergency benefits,
Congressı Republican leaders refused to consider Democratsı bills to extend
for up to six months the program that will expire Dec. 21.

They did the same thing just before Christmas last year, denying emergency
benefits to some 800,000 jobless workers. But the GOP majority relented
under heavy pressure from President Bush, who feared the political fallout,
and agreed in January to renew the program for five months, later extending
it for six months beyond that.

Doing that this year, however, would conflict with the major pre-election
year message of Bush and his Republican colleagues in Congress that the
countryıs economy is rapidly improving under their leadership. They refuse
to acknowledge that unemployment remains a serious problem, even though that
means denying aid to some of the countryıs poorest and neediest citizens.

Democrats are making it an issue, and they very well should. As Rep. Charles
Rangel of New York says, ³It borders on being immoral.Canıt they have some
compassion for the families that  have been trying to take care of the kids
and trying to get over the holidays?²

³Itıs scandalous,² says Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland. ³Unemployment
benefits are not a luxury.²

Cardin is right. The benefits help individual workers and their families
escape poverty, while at the same time boosting the general economy by
putting money into the hands of people who immediately spend it ­ for food,
housing and other basic necessities.

Thats exactly what happened during the recession of the early 1990s, when
Congress extended the payout period for benefits on five different
occasions.

Although extension is as essential now as it was then, it is only one step
that must be taken if the 68-year-old Unemployment Insurance program is to
fully realize its vital promise.

Current rules deny any benefits to more than half the jobless, for instance.
And those who do get benefits are fortunate if they amount to as much as
one-third of their former pay. They get on the average only about $250 a
week ­ some as little as $113 ­ and lack such essentials as health
insurance.

Some try to get by on a spouseıs income or their savings or other assets.
They skip car and mortgage payments. Some go on welfare, perhaps apply for
food stamps, move in with their parents or live on the street.

In short, although they are citizens of by far the wealthiest nation in
world history, they are forced to live a degrading existence that does great
economic harm to others as well as themselves.

It would make obvious economic sense if the government followed the
enlightened lead of other industrialized nations and granted higher
unemployment benefits to more people for longer periods, provided them
health care coverage, and helped train them for the many jobs available to
workers with the necessary skills.

The program also needs to be fixed to help the many part-time, seasonal,
temporary and minimum wage workers who now make up at least one-third of the
workforce, but who often get no aid because of rules that deny benefits to
many lower-paid workers.

And why not do what was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s to
help revive the severely crippled economy? Why not put the jobless to work
building or rebuilding bridges, highways, schools and other elements of the
generally crumbling national infrastructure?

It could happen. Even Scrooge finally came to his senses.

Copyright İ 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and
commentator. (dickmeistersf@earthlink.net)



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