The US Senate passed a procedural vote Tuesday to extend long-term unemployment insurance that ended late last year. The vote does not guarantee final passage, and the measure still must pass the House of Representatives, according to a report by USA Today.
The 60-37 vote with six Republicans voting with the majority of Democrats shows there is ample support to reinstate Emergency Unemployment Compensation that expired Dec. 28 leaving 1.3 million jobless Americans without benefits, many for whom the benefit is their only source of income. The average unemployment benefit per person is $330 a week.
President Barack Obama praised the Senate’s progress on the bill saying it’s a “very important step” and called on Republicans in the Senate and House to back the legislation “without obstruction or delay.”
"Voting for unemployment insurance helps people and creates jobs and voting against it does not," Obama said in remarks at the White House.
"We have got to get this across the finish line without obstruction or delay and we need the House of Representatives to be able to vote for it as well," he said. "That’s the bottom line."
Obama said there are economic and moral arguments for extending the benefits, and the extension is in the spirit of Americans who believe in helping each other.
"We know that, there but for the grace of God, go I," he said.
The congressional fight is not over. Although six Republicans joined all present Democrats to advance the bill in the Senate, other Republican lawmakers say they want the $6.4 billion cost to be offset by spending cuts, which the White House has rejected.
Most Republicans opposed the bill because the $6.4 billion cost of the extension is not offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. This is the tea party faction of Republican representation in Congress, which ironically does not represent the majority of Americans who overwhelming favor extending the benefits.
The goal of long-term unemployment benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is to provide people with about half their normal wage. Unlike Sen. Rand Paul’s recent proclamation on Fox News when he basically insulted 1.3 million people saying that if the government pays people not to work, they won't. And if you want them to work, you should stop paying them not to. Therefore his perverse logic to not extend unemployment benefits "do a disservice to workers, causing them to become part of the perpetually unemployed group," is wrong from a safety-net stand point as well as shallow in his assumptions about the unemployed.
If any group relies on working to survive it’s the group he has incorrectly referenced as “perpetually unemployed, ” that live on the cusp usually without the expectation that a service or retail job will be permanent. If the average unemployment benefit is $330/week, these are people making approximately $660 week when they are employed, which equates to a little over $8/hour. This amount hovers at poverty level. These are the very same jobs that can be here one day and gone tomorrow based on seasonal need or mercurial economic cutbacks.
Here are two profiles of the kinds of people Paul has chosen to dehumanize in his attempt to marginalize the long-term unemployed.
In San Bernardino, California Walmart pays $8.42 hour for the average retail employee. The company is notoriously anti-union; battle an endless stream of discrimination suits; and employs 1 percent of America, paying its sales associates, on average, a poverty-level wage. And, even though higher than federal minimum wage, Walmart is 14 percent below the average pay of a retail worker elsewhere, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On the other side of the United States in New York, a Syracuse website featured Bill Wilkinson who is 57 years old, has a master's degree, and for more than two years, has earned $7.50 an hour, and is lucky he has a job. He has been working at a pizza place that paid him 25 cents more than the state or federal law minimum.
Wilkinson faces the added stress of being an older employee who faces more competition from younger low-wage earners.
"People over 50 are just not getting hired," said Wilkinson, who has a master's in music composition and lost a job paying close to $12 an hour, with commissions.
These are tenuous jobs whose only safety net is unemployment benefits both short and long-term. Fortunately Wilkinson is still employed, but his concern about those over 50 resonates with the long-term unemployed statistics.
Nearly 40 percent of unemployed workers are over the age of 45 — a 30 percent rise from the 1980s. And for this segment of the population, the job hunt can be particularly long and frustrating. Those unemployed aged 45-54 were jobless for 45 weeks on average, and those 55 to 64 were jobless for 57 weeks, according to an October 2013 Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll reported by NBC News.
The next time a member of Congress chooses to insult the long-term unemployed, he should consider the fact that he could be referring to an elder in your family or close friend. When the House considers the measure, it needs to take a long look at the average profile of the long-term unemployed and vote in favor of extending their benefits, anything less would be un-American.