Unemployment and Poverty in America

The recent payroll tax deal struck by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama will keep an average of $1,000 in the pockets of 160 million American families through 2012 in addition to enabling tens of millions of seniors to continue seeing the doctor of their choice under Medicare. It also provides unemployment benefits for millions of people who have been unable to find a job; however many Republicans continued to ignore the impact unemployment insurance has on poverty in America. They argue that jobless individuals would rather collect unemployment benefits than look for work. This argument is both insensitive and baseless.

Unemployment insurance is an individual worker's insurance program, not a handout. Just as with automobile or homeowners insurance, one must first have paid into the system to receive compensation. To do so he must have been employed full-time and have lost his job at no fault of his own by being laid off.

Under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, Republicans have demanded unnecessary requirements that make it more difficult for unemployed Americans to collect their benefits. States can now require drug tests for certain beneficiaries. Republicans also have included burdensome provisions that will require recipients to undergo "reemployment assessments" and "national job search requirements."

Fortunately the enacted legislation excluded further damaging Republican measures such as raising Medicare costs for beneficiaries that would have caused 170,000 seniors to lose health coverage. Republicans also attempted to pass a provision that would have denied insurance benefits to any recipient who lacks a high school diploma or a GED (General Equivalency Diploma) certificate and is not currently enrolled in classes to obtain one. This would have impacted 47 percent of America's workers over 45 years old that have paid into the system during their working years, but are now jobless and in the process of securing their future.

Yet with 13 million Americans still unemployed, the deal only extends current levels and length of unemployment insurance through May of this year. Afterwards, maximum lengths of benefits decrease in steps depending on individual states' unemployment rate. For New Yorkers, it is projected that the new law will retain the current maximum level of 93 weeks through May, reduce the maximum to 73 weeks over the summer and to 63 weeks in September.

Today there are around 50 million Americans living in poverty. In New York City alone the poverty rate is 19.1 percent, higher than the national average of 15 percent. It is deplorable that we would put further constraints on one of the few programs that helps keep Americans out of poverty and provides assistance at a very difficult time for them. This is an insurance policy that workers pay for. Their federal government is simply providing extra assistance -- as it historically has done every time the national unemployment rate exceeds 7.5 percent -- because the current unemployment rate is currently so high.

The most recent Census proves that unemployment insurance lifted an estimated 3.2 million Americans out of poverty. Out of those numbers, 861,000 were children living with a family member who qualified for unemployment insurance.

Finding a job is already a daunting enough task while trying to make ends meet with unemployment benefits. The national average amount received is merely 36 percent of the recipient's previous weekly wage; in New York the average income is $32,000. Having that cut by 64 percent would leave a worker at risk of living in poverty and deprive him the security gained by full-time employment.

Since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the historic Social Security Act of 1935, unemployment insurance has kept American families from falling into poverty and provided some relief while they look for a new job. Seventy seven years later, this vital lifeline for unemployment insurance recipients continues to be weakened.

We are talking about people who have played by the rules yet still lost their hope for a better future. They are hard working Americans who have caught a tough break and must now worry about surviving one day at a time. Rather than enforcing stringent requirements to receive their entitled benefits, we should be providing them the assistance and confidence they need while trying to start a new career. Drug testing, reemployment assessments and additional cumbersome requirements are the last things they need right now.

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