Unemployment Insurance Gets a Soap Box Hearing
Policy + Politics

Unemployment Insurance Gets a Soap Box Hearing

Reilly Dowd/The Fiscal Times

It is the unemployment version of the national debt clock. On this “Witness Wednesday,” the number ticked up to 3,095,023 long-term unemployed Americans during an event Republicans consider a publicity stunt but Democrats see as central to their midterm message.

The rising tally is of the number of those cut off from emergency unemployment compensation benefits since Congress refused additional relief to the long-term unemployed.

Related: How Growing Partisanship Is Splitting the U.S. in Two

This week’s “Witness Wednesday” took place outside the Capitol in the sweltering summer heat as a group of people shared stories, one more heart wrenching than the next, and appealed for help. One woman couldn’t afford to buy stockings to wear for a job interview. Another couldn’t remember the last time she smiled.

Congresswoman Dina Titus shared a letter from a Las Vegas constituent, a 52-year-old woman named Patricia who has spent months looking for a job. “I’m at the end of my rope,” she wrote. “I’ve lost everything, my house, my car, my husband.”

Other Democratic House members on hand included Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin. In addition to the gigantic red poster with the count were campaign-style signs with the slogan #RenewUI.

“That Congress has not extended long-term unemployment benefits is really reprehensible,” Edwards said in an interview. “It’s time for the Republican leadership to put the unemployment bill on the floor, pass it so that working people can continue to receive their unemployment.”

Related:  Jobs Data Spurs Call to Renew Unemployment Insurance

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, with red and gold pins on their lapels—yes, Republicans—were scurrying past the event, rushing to make a vote on the House floor.

“It would show a lot of courage if some of those from the Republican side showed up today,” said Rev. Willie E. Briscoe, president of a Milwaukee interfaith organization. Not one of them did.

Back in March, the Senate passed a five-month extension as part of a compromise, but the issue is stalled in the GOP House. Some conservatives argue it is bad policy to continue unemployment benefits indefinitely. Others, including members of the House GOP leadership, have said they would be open to another extension only if it is paid for with cuts elsewhere in the budget, or if paired with new tax incentives and other job-creating measures. Democrats have scoffed at these demands.

“It’s such an odd thing,” said Edwards. “In the history of the Congress, we have never had a situation where Republicans and Democrats haven’t agreed to extend unemployment benefits.”

Related: Devastating New Poll Shows Americans Believe Obama Can No Longer Lead the Country

Her advice? “That Republicans reach back in their own playbook from their own past leaders.”  

Since federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) ended in December 2013, the number of Americans who have been unable to access unemployment assistance jumped from 1.3 million to more than 3 million. More than a third of the 9.8 million Americans currently unemployed have been actively trying to get a job for more than six months.

Democrats say women are disproportionately affected – and this is clearly part of their political strategy, as events like this are staged in hopes of shaping the midterm election climate.

Related: How the 113th Do-Nothing Congress Lived Up to Its Name

“This is a women’s issue,” Rep. Moore of Wisconsin told The Fiscal Times.

A study released Wednesday by the liberal-leaning National Women’s Law Center says that women are already “economically vulnerable” and that long-term unemployment without insurance benefits is hurting them the most. Among women, those in the worst position – facing the highest rates of long-term unemployment and the longest stretches without a job – are often over age 55, single parents, Asian-American or African-American, and not surprisingly, already living in poverty.

“I’m glad their study corroborated what we already knew,” said Moore. “What we continue to hear from proponents of ending support to women and children is that the poverty level has gone down, that people are better off. And of course people [would be] better off, if there were jobs.”

The May unemployment rate was 6.3 overall and 11.5 for African Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. African Americans have been hit particularly hard and continue to struggle even as the economy recovers. “They are really in a lurch,” said Moore.

Related: Presidential Power, Bipartisan Hypocrisy

Yet the Wednesday event was about bringing the stories behind the statistics into the sunlight—and dispelling the stereotype that jobless Americans want to milk the system. From someone in Sterling Heights, MI: “I’m not looking for a handout.” From Waterbury, CT: “I've paid my taxes for 31 years and never been unemployed.” From Farmington, MI: “I am an elementary school teacher with two Masters Degrees.” From Louisville, KT: “I am an older lady and have been applying for jobs; there have been no offers.”

Organizers say that next week, another “Witness Wednesday” will almost certainly return, along with the billboard keeping the rising count of the long-term unemployed.

Top Reads from the Fiscal Times: