Extending a Critical Lifeline for the Long-Term Unemployed

This weekend, Unemployment Insurance benefits are set to expire for more than 1.3 million Americans. These are people who have been struggling in this tough economy after losing their jobs through no fault of their own, and now they will lose a critical lifeline. New Year's is supposed to be a time of excitement and new beginnings, but for too many people, it will be a time of desperation.

This is happening because Congress failed to act to renew the extended emergency unemployment benefits that have helped them keep food on the table and a roof over their heads while looking for work.

These benefits are provided through the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which provides additional aid to workers when their state benefits run out. The current version of this program was launched under President Bush and a Republican Congress in 2008 to help combat the recession. At that time, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent and the average duration of unemployment was 17 weeks.

The hole that this administration inherited in the Great Recession was a very deep one. And when you're in a hole, rule No. 1 is: stop digging. We must maintain these emergency benefits in order to continue climbing our way back to a fully healthy economy.

It's true that we have made significant strides toward recovery, and unemployment has fallen to about a five-year low at 7 percent. But the average duration of unemployment is more than twice as long at 36 weeks, and long-term unemployment remains unacceptably high at 2.6 percent.

It's important to remember Unemployment Insurance has had a long, rich and appropriately bipartisan history. And it has always been maintained well into periods of economic recovery. Never before has Congress pulled the plug on this program when long-term joblessness was even half as high as it is right now.

I've heard the argument that unemployment benefits somehow act as a disincentive to the long-term unemployed when it comes to looking for work, but the opposite is true. Unemployment Insurance serves as a powerful incentive for people to keep searching for jobs, rather than drop out of the labor force altogether.

This is a very important issue for our nation. And it comes at a time of year when we remember and act on our sense of responsibility to one another.

Congress can still do the right thing in the New Year and renew this program. Extending emergency unemployment benefits isn't just the right thing to do for our families -- it's the smart thing to do for our economy.