Despite Improving Employment Picture, Jobless Workers Face a Bleak Holiday with Federal Unemployment Benefits Set to Expire

By Neil Ridley

This time of year, many jobless workers and their families face a difficult and uncertain holiday season. Unless Congress acts soon, 1.3 million workers will lose federal unemployment benefits when the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program expires on December 28. Another 850,000 workers will exhaust state unemployment benefits in early 2014 and lose access to federal unemployment assistance.

Workers will lose benefits at a time when the recovery is still slow. The unemployment rate-which the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) today announced had dropped slightly to 7.0 percent-is nearly two full percentage points higher than when the recession started in 2007. Moreover, long-term unemployment remains at record levels compared to previous economic recoveries. In November 2013, 37 percent of jobless workers-4.1 million people-had been out of work for six months or more, according to the BLS. If the nation continues to add jobs at the modest rate shown in the November jobs report, it will take five years to return to pre-recession employment levels.

Job loss and long-term unemployment place enormous pressure on children and families. More than 6 million children lived with an unemployed parent during 2012, and nearly 3 million children lived with a parent facing long-term unemployment (that is, jobless workers seeking work for six months or longer). Families in which a parent is jobless for months or years are more likely to endure financial hardship and the stress that often accompanies it. For example, we know that children living in low-income households experience deprivation that puts them behind their peers on a range of measures.

Unemployment benefits are not only one of the first lines of defense in a weak economy, but also a proven anti-poverty strategy. Census data show that unemployment benefits kept 1.7 million people above the poverty line in 2012, even as workers faced a reduction in the number of weeks of federal benefits. More than 2 million people stayed above the poverty line as a result of unemployment benefits in 2011.

Low-income jobless workers and their families face a double hit because the expiration of the EUC program arrives shortly after the end of the 2009 Recovery Act's temporary boost to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. This SNAP reduction, which went into effect on November 1, cuts food assistance for a family of three by about $29 per month. SNAP provides an important safety net for low-wage and unemployed workers and their families. However, Congress is considering even deeper cuts to SNAP.

Without congressional action, long-term unemployed workers will lose benefits as they continue to search for work in a sluggish economy. Congress should renew the EUC program beyond the end of 2013. Jobless workers and their families are counting on it.

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