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Congress' shameful treatment of the long-term unemployed

Posted: December 15, 2011 - 1:09am

We all know not to expect much, or much of anything, from Congress these days. But watching the latest political gamesmanship over whether to extend long-term unemployment benefits for 2012 has somehow set the bar even lower. Don’t tell me this is proper political discourse, or just the normal horse-trading that occurs in Washington. It is unconscionable in December 2011 to not have a quick and clear extension of long-term benefits given the severe hardship millions of households are experiencing.

Of the 13.3 million Americans on the books as officially unemployed, 43 percent _ 5.7 million _ have been out of work for at least 27 weeks. The non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the previous high for the long-term unemployed over the last 60 years was 26 percent in 1983. Yet here we are at 43 percent and Congress is dickering over whether or not to extend the benefits.

And please don’t fall for any spin that the seemingly positive unemployment report for November mitigates the need to help the long-term unemployed.

Make no mistake, we are still in crisis mode. The unemployment rate didn’t drop from 9 percent to 8.6 percent because there were a ton of new jobs for the unemployed to step into. Much of the decline in the rate is attributed to the fact that more than 300,000 of the unemployed have stopped looking for work, so they no longer get counted in the math of the unemployment rate. We in fact added only 120,000 new jobs in November. At that pace it would take more than four years for private-sector employment to get back to where it was in late 2007. That’s not exactly a rosy picture.

Now of course, what will probably happen _ though with this Congress who knows _ is that sometime between now and Congress’ Christmas recess we will get word that the bickering has subsided enough and that long-term benefits will in fact be extended for 2012. But every day that we don’t yet have a deal is another day of congressional failure to serve its constituency. I am not talking solely about the 5.7 million. This speaks to what we as a nation stand for. I refuse to believe we are a country that wants to abandon our unemployed, or use them as political leverage. Yet here we are.

Concerned at the cost? Well, keep in mind that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has previously noted that extending unemployment benefits packs the most stimulative bang for the buck. Give someone with a job some money (through a tax break, say) and they might save it, or they might spend it. Give an unemployed person assistance and odds are very high that money quickly gets poured right back into the economy. That’s something that benefits all of us, at a time when the economy remains perilously fragile. And most important, it provides some relief for those who are struggling most.

• Orman is host of a personal finance show every Saturday on CNBC.

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