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We Need New Adjectives for the Unemployment Debate

Last night, Congress passed — and President Obama signed into law — legislation that provides a short-term benefit extension for the long-term unemployed. The bill is designed to allow lawmakers more time to negotiate a longer-term benefit extension for the long-term unemployed.

Confusing? You bet.

And there seem to be several factors contributing to the puzzlement.

  • The extension of benefits is not quite an extension of benefits. The four tiers of federal help will remain four tiers of federal help. What had expired April 5 — and what Congress just extended until June 2 — was the filing deadline for accessing the next level of benefits if (1) you live in a state that makes you eligible for the next level of benefits, and (2) your most recent benefits expired, or were set to expire, after April 5. But if you’ve exhausted all the benefits for which you’re eligible, this bill doesn’t help you. And neither will the next one.
  • The mingling of state, federal and state-federal programs — combined with the tiered system of federal benefits — is in itself baffling. The rules differ for different states, but generally it works like this:
  • State benefits run a standard 26 weeks, after which the federal help kicks in.
  • The federal help — dubbed Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) — is temporary, which is why Congress keeps having to step in to extend it. EUC is divided into four tiers. Tier I runs for 20 weeks; Tier II for 14 weeks; Tier III is 13 weeks, but only for states with unemployment rates higher than 6 percent; and Tier IV is 6 weeks, but only for states where jobless rates top 8.5 percent. So altogether, EUC provides a maximum of 53 weeks of benefits on top of the 26 weeks of state help. (Max total combined = 79 weeks).
  • States also offer something called the Extended Benefits (EB) program, which is a joint venture combining state and federal funds for a maximum of 20 additional weeks of benefits (though some states offer only 13 weeks). With state budgets in crisis mode from the recession, Congress has stepped in to assume 100 percent of the cost of this program. The bill that passed yesterday extends that enhanced federal funding to ensure that states don’t drop the program altogether. (States usually direct unemployed residents to the EB program only after they’ve exhausted all EUC benefits. EUC, after all, is guaranteed to be paid 100 percent by Washington, whereas states will eventually be responsible for some of the EB costs.)
  • So all told, unemployed workers could be eligible for a maximum of 99 weeks of benefits between the three programs (26 + 53 + 20).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal policy shop, has a nice summary of state-specific benefits here. But the best way to confirm eligibility rules is to contact your state labor department.

  • The terminology being used in this debate — particularly the vague but oft-cited “long-term unemployed” category — is beginning to lose its meaning as the jobs crisis grows longer. Meaning: The Department of Labor defines the long-term unemployed as those who’ve been out of work longer than 27 weeks — a category that now boasts 6.5 million unfortunate members (representing a startling 44 percent of all jobless Americans). Yet this could include those in the earliest stages of their EUC benefits — folks who could have nearly 18 months of benefits remaining (assuming that Congress continues to extend the deadline). And there’s very little data to break down that category further to learn, for example, how many people have exhausted all of their EUC benefits, and now have nowhere to turn for help. Anecdotally, we’re hearing of more and more folks falling into this category (just read the comment threads on this site). Yet no one seems to be counting them to gauge the necessity of, say, a fifth tier of emergency help.

The Department of Labor does break down the long-term unemployed a bit — tallying those who’ve been out of work between 27 and 51 weeks, and those who’ve been unemployed longer than 52 weeks. But those numbers are crunched only on an annual, not a monthly, basis. And, again, they do nothing to reveal how many folks might have exhausted all of their federal benefits.

Still, even those broad categories are enough to indicate a troubling trend. From 2008 to 2009, the percent of the unemployed folks who’d been out of work between 27 and 51 weeks jumped from 9.1 percent to 15.2 percent, DOL reports. For those unemployed longer than 52 weeks (the super long-term unemployed?), the rate jumped from 10.6 percent in 2008 to 16.3 percent last year.

The trend begs a question: Though the Dow has rebounded and Wall Street bankers are back enjoying their bonuses, can we really call it a recovery when millions of willing workers still can’t find a decent job?

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