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Economic Recovery Misses Long-Term Unemployed

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By Robin Stephenson

Dirk Benson lives in Portland, Ore.—so do I. Dirk Benson is a writer—so am I. But Dirk Benson lost his unemployment insurance, sometimes sleeps in the airport or an abandoned house, and struggles to find work. I, on the other hand, can look out my window from the security of my apartment, and feel grateful to have a job. Through the morning fog, I see the Portland hills, filled with mansions and manicured lawns, and Dirk’s story haunts me.

When I first listened to Dirk’s story on National Public Radio, all I could do was sit and wonder "what if?" I wondered why Congress won’t extend emergency unemployment insurance (EUC) when employment rates have yet to reach pre-recession levels. The news is filled with stories of people whose situations have gone from bad to dire.

In a recent Forbes piece, John T. Harvey aptly characterized the debate over extending EUC as “ridiculous.”  The unemployment crisis is not over; there are still three applicants for every job opening.

The economy is slowly recovering and the job market is picking up, but the rate of long-term unemployment is worse than during any other economic downturn since the World War II, and remains at record levels.

“I can’t imagine that anybody in Congress or the Senate can be looking at this thinking that I don’t want to work or that any of us that are out here in this situation don’t want to work,” Clarissa Garcia Jewett, who lost her nursing job last May, tells the National Journal. “We’re looking for work; we’re just not getting it.”

Although some call the jobless lazy and characterize unemployment benefits as handouts, the facts tell a different story. As Harvey points out in Forbes, in just three years the number of unemployed Americans grew from nearly 7 million to more than 15 million. “[W]e have to explain why the United States experiences mass waves of laziness interspersed with periods of industriousness,” he writes.

Cutting EUC during a crisis does not help job seekers. Long-term unemployed already face diminishing returns in their search. Those who are unemployed for more than six months have a less than 15 percent chance of finding a job in today's market. For Dirk Benson, living rough means that he spends five hours of his day finding food and a shower instead of applying for work.

Last Friday, Congress left for a three-day holiday without giving long-term job seekers a break. Members of Congress still have not passed an extension of EUC, and every additional week they fail to act, another 72,000 unemployed workers continue to lose their benefits.

When I hear Dirk Benson’s story, I realize that he and I are only separated by a job. I get paid for these few words, while his story of struggle doesn’t come with a paycheck. In a country as wealthy as the United States, where most are riding the rising tide of a recovering economy, I shake my head in exasperation when I see that our leaders will not throw job seekers a life preserver.

Robin Stephenson is national lead for social media and a senior organizer at Bread for the World.

 

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