House votes to extend unemployment benefits: Good, but not enough

As America's unemployment rate edges closer to 10 percent and the phrase "jobless recovery" becomes part of everyday conversation, the House of Representatives voted late Tuesday to extend unemployment benefits for thirteen more weeks in the 29 states where the unemployment rate is over 8.5 percent. The extension, which will cost $1.4 billion, will help one million workers.

Unemployment benefits typically last for 26 weeks, but the new measure, combined with previous extensions, offers workers up to 79 weeks of federally-funded support. To pay for the extension, legislators have proposed delaying a reduction in employer-funded unemployment insurance.
While the new move promises to help many workers, it is barely a stopgap against an ever-increasing deluge of unemployed workers. Although first-time unemployment claims fell earlier this month, they still numbered more than half a million, and 6.23 million Americans collected unemployment benefits during the second week of September. Many experts have forecast that unemployment will continue to rise well into 2010. In this context, even a thirteen-week benefit extension is barely a stopgap.

Beyond the issue of funding unemployment benefits, the government faces a growing crisis of legitimacy. While a segment of any population will want to be supported by the community, a large part of America's mythology is based around the notion of self-sufficiency. In this context, the jobless crisis is affecting a lot more than the country's wallets; as American workers find themselves collecting unemployment checks rather than paychecks, dissatisfaction with big business and the government continues to grow.

In the meantime, some states have launched stimulus plans of their own. In 2008, New Jersey's Governor Jon Corzine launched a plan that gave companies $3,000 every time they hired a worker whose unemployment benefits had expired; the only catch was that the jobs had to last at least one year. The program had a fund of $50 million, which it exhausted in two months. This year, Corzine has put together a similar, federally-funded plan that will give employers $2,400 per worker.

Earlier this year, officials in Tennessee directly subsidized 300 jobs in Perry County, one of its worst-hit areas. While the jobs, which include cooking and brush-clearing, were of questionable necessity, they reduced unemployment in the area by 40 percent, and poured money into the local economy.

The big-budget construction projects of the New Deal tend to draw the most attention from historians, making it easy to forget just how significant its smaller, more local job creation efforts were. Federally funded jobs as varied as canning, sewing, and mural-painting employed thousands of people, keeping them off the unemployment rolls and keeping their families off bread lines. As America looks forward to a long, cold winter of continued job reductions, our representatives needs to start looking a little further outside the box.
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