Lee pushes for unemployment benefit extension

Rep. Barbara Lee is helping to leading dozens of House members in demanding that an extension of emergency unemployment benefits be part of whatever “fiscal cliff” solution is worked out between Congress and the White House.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)When I interviewed Lee, D-Oakland, last week for my story in Saturday’s editions about the Bay Area delegation’s stance on the negotiations, she had said this was among her top priorities.

Congress in February reduced the maximum number of weeks from 99 to 73 — which Lee called “totally unconscionable” — and now it’s about to fall back to six months, cutting off more than 2 million people. Maintaining the benefits until at least 73 weeks is imperative, she said.

“Not only is it the right thing to do but it’s the economically prudent thing to do,” Lee said last week, noting that unemployment benefit dollars usually go directly out into the economy as the jobless feed, clothe and shelter their families.

So Lee and Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., sent a letter to House and Senate leaders yesterday requesting a full and robust extension, signed by 78 House members including George Miller, D-Martinez; Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton; Pete Stark, D-Fremont; Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, Mike Honda, D-Campbell; Lynn Woolsey, D-San Rafael; and Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz.

“Every one dollar spent on unemployment insurance generates $1.55 in economic activity,” Lee said in a news release today. “With millions of Americans still struggling to recover from the recession, we cannot afford to strip one of the only remaining lifelines for workers that are eager to get back to work.”

Read the entire Lee/Peters letter, after the jump…

Dear House and Senate Leaders,

While our economy is showing signs of recovery with the addition of 171,000 jobs in October 2012 and the unemployment under 8%, over 12 million Americans remain unemployed. The long-term unemployment rate – the share of unemployed workers who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer – was over 40% throughout the entirety of 2010 and 2011, and persists at a rate of 40.6% in October 2012. This is an unprecedented level of long-term unemployment; the previous peak, in June 1983, was just 26%.

Unemployment benefits are a proven lifeline to families that they rely on to help pay for necessities such as rent, groceries, and utilities. Expansions to the unemployment insurance program enacted in the Recovery Act and subsequent legislation in 2009 and 2010 lifted over 3.2 million Americans out of poverty in 2010, and 2.3 million in 2011 including over 600,000 children.

As House and Senate leadership negotiate legislation addressing expiring tax provisions, cuts mandated by sequestration, and the Medicare sustainable growth rate, we urge you to include a robust extension of federal unemployment benefits for American workers. Given the unprecedented levels of long-term unemployment our nation currently faces, a full extension of unemployment benefits through 2013 should represent the minimum acceptable extension in any year-end compromise legislation. Should Congress fail to act by the last week of December, over two million workers will immediately lose their federal unemployment benefits.

Disconcertingly, federal unemployment benefits were already reduced earlier this year; the total cap on combined state and federal unemployment benefits was cut from 99 weeks at the beginning of 2012 to 73 weeks currently. Additionally, the need to extend federal unemployment benefits is amplified by unprecedented cuts to both the amount and duration of unemployment benefits made by a number of states.

We also have serious concerns about proposals that divert unemployment funds from direct recipients or that subject recipients to new drug testing and education requirements which create barriers for our nation’s unemployed. We encourage House and Senate leadership to ensure that states use their unemployment funds, as they have historically done, to compensate recipients and not for any other purpose, and reject efforts to create new barriers for eligible individuals seeking unemployment benefits.

Reducing federal unemployment benefits would plunge hundreds of thousands of Americans into poverty and jeopardize our nation’s economic recovery. With millions of American workers relying on these benefits to make ends meet as our nation’s economic recovery continues to take hold, now is not the time to roll back this critical lifeline. We urge you to come together and ensure that unemployment benefits remain available to American workers when they need it most.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.