Laid Off and Left Out

Somehow, in our collective outrage over $165 million in bonuses going to the very people who trashed the economy, we've ignored an even bigger scandal. Tens of thousands of laid-off workers in six states won't be receiving extended unemployment benefits, because their governors are more interested in playing party politics than in the well-being of their constituents. If you live in Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina or Texas, you are laid off and left out.

Six Republican governors have rejected, or have pledged to reject, hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus fund that would help those hurt the worst by Wall Street's irresponsibility. When AIG defrauded investors and the government, employees there took home millions in bonuses. Elsewhere, people are living unemployment check to unemployment check through no fault of their own, laid off because everyone is tightening their belts and job growth is nonexistent. Shoring up the unemployment insurance safety net is fundamental fairness.

Obama's stimulus package provides $25 more per week for those who are struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps this doesn't sound like much to Alaska's Sarah Palin, who can spend more of the Republican Party's money on clothes and makeup than most Americans make in a year. But to plenty of Alaskans, it can mean the difference between paying their bills and going hungry while they search for another job.

There are many who could use the helping hand. "I'm scared to death," says Elisa Perez-Alford of New Mexico. She lost her job as a social worker when the state had to cut back on spending. Now she relies on credit cards just to pay for groceries. Marvin Bohn of Ohio was laid off after 42 years in the food service industry when Antioch College shut its doors last year. He has diabetes and heart disease, a pacemaker and a defibrillator, and needs 11 medications, but he couldn't afford to continue his health coverage on the $329 a week he gets from unemployment insurance. He has run through his savings paying his medical bills out of pocket, and he has not yet found another job.

It makes basic economic sense to give the stimulus money to those who need it the most, but these six Republican governors have decided their constituents don't need that money. Palin refused $160 million in funds for Alaska that would have been used for weatherization, energy efficiency grants, immunizations, air quality grants, emergency food assistance, homeless grants, senior meals, child care development grants, nutrition programs, homeless grants, arts, unemployment services, air quality, justice assistance grants and other programs. "We say no to more operating funds for positions in government," Palin said March 19.

South Carolina's Mark Sanford only wants to use the federal money to pay down debt. He said the United States faces a Zimbabwe-style economic collapse if it keeps "spending a bunch of money we don't have." But state debt is only going to be expanded if thousands of formerly employed people lose their homes and have to rely on emergency rooms for their health care.

What the Obama administration is asking in return for the stimulus money is that states modernize their unemployment infrastructure. States must cover the lowest-income workers and part-time workers. This seems like a reasonable thing to do when that infrastructure obviously is going to be facing some stress in the near future.

Marvin Bohn is thankful the governor of Ohio isn't refusing funds, and thinks it's unfair that where you live could affect whether you get a helping hand. "It shouldn't be partisan, they should ask the people of that state," he says. "The only people who are going to say, 'No, I don't need the money, send it back,' are the people who don't need it, the people who are rich."

Next Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the new monthly unemployment figures. The numbers are expected to be bad. Meanwhile, the much looked-for help the federal government has offered will be available only to those Americans whose governors aren't trying to score political points. It's time to remember it isn't just big corporations that are hurting in this economy. Let's let these Republican governors know they need to help make America work for working Americans.