Guest commentary: Extend unemployment benefits

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Supporting those who are unemployed is part of the fundamental contract we enter as citizens of this great country.

Itís why every time we receive a pay check, we give a small portion of it to pay for unemployment insurance, knowing that if we ever find ourselves without a job ó as many of us will do at some point in our lives ó it will be there to help us get back on our feet.

This is the promise we make as Americans to help those who temporarily need assistance.

UNFORTUNATELY, due to a tragic combination of Congressional inaction and petty partisanship, we have broken this promise. Because House Republicans failed to allow a vote to extend long-term unemployment insurance before the new year, 1.3 million Americans, including almost 24,000 Wisconsinites, lost access to these vital benefits on December 28th.

Every additional week that Congress remains in a stalemate, 1,600 additional people in our state will lose unemployment insurance, meaning that without action, almost 100,000 Wisconsinites could be left without these vital benefits by the end of 2014.

As anyone who has ever visited a workforce development center in Wisconsin knows, the vast majority of people who are unemployed are not looking for a handout ó they are looking for work. But while the U.S. economy has improved since 2008, there are still 1.3 million fewer jobs than there were before the financial crisis. As a result, in Wisconsin more than 190,000 people remain unemployed, 35% of whom have been searching for a job for more than six months.

HERE IN Rock County, the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state.

Cutting off long-term unemployment insurance means that people who are desperately trying to find work have no place to go for help. Annually in Wisconsin, unemployment insurance lifts nearly 57,000 Wisconsinites, including more than 13,000 children, out of poverty. Without unemployment insurance benefits, weíd undoubtedly see more families struggling to support their basic needs.

But there are much broader economic implications from Congressional inaction on this issue as well. There are few programs that more immediately stimulate the economy than unemployment insurance. Why? Because these benefits are almost immediately put right back into the economy to pay for basic necessities, such as food or fuel.

IN JUST the first week since Congress cut off long-term unemployment, our local economies in Wisconsin lost more than $6.3 million in potential economic activity. That number will only grow if more and more Wisconsinites are kicked off unemployment insurance.

This loss in revenue for our local economies does not exist without its own consequences. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the economic effects of failing to extend unemployment insurance could cost the economy 200,000 jobs in 2014, while decreasing GDP. In other words, when we cut off unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, we not only cut off an important lifeline for these individuals, we also make it harder for them to re-enter the workforce. Itís akin to pouring salt in the wounds of the unemployed.

TO SUMMARIZE: refusing to extend long-term unemployment benefits threatens the livelihoods of thousands of Wisconsinites and denies our state economy a much needed stimulus. This isnít just poor public policy. For the tens of thousands of Wisconsinites who are seeing this much-needed assistance taken away because of reckless partisanship, it is cruel public policy.

The Senate has been moving toward an extension in a bipartisan manner. House Republican leadership, unfortunately, continues to ignore the plight of the poor in favor of fighting old political battles over health care.

If Republicans want to continue to claim that their focus is on improving the economy, they should be in favor of extending unemployment insurance. It would support the millions of Americans who are looking for work, while boosting our economy and creating jobs. I urge my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to join me and my fellow House Democrats in ensuring we keep our promise to the people we represent.

Madison Democrat Mark Pocan represents Wisconsinís 2nd Congressional District, which includes Beloit, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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