In a surprise result, a bill extending long-term unemployment benefits for three months cleared a key test vote in the Senate on Tuesday. But the proposal still faces an uncertain future in Congress.
Passage could be difficult in the Senate, where Democrats may have trouble finding 60 votes to prevent Republicans from blocking a final vote. And the GOP-controlled House is expected to shoot down the proposal altogether.
If the benefits do get extended — and the chances appear low — they could provide a measure of relief to people who have been unable to find work for six months. But there are still much broader questions about how to get those people back to work.
Since the Great Recession, long-term unemployment has been historically bad. The number of people out of work for 27 weeks or more peaked in 2010 at 6.7 million. It’s fallen since then, but it still stood at 4.1 million in November 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than the entire population of Oregon.
Rarely in U.S. history have this many people been out of work for this long. Over the past four decades, there have only been a handful of times where more than 2 million people have been out of work for more than six months.
The dire situation led to an extension of emergency federal unemployment insurance in 2008 for those out of work beyond 26 weeks, when most state benefits run out. The program was renewed a number of times, but it expired under the bipartisan budget deal reached last month.
About 1.3 million people lost their benefits when the program ended on Dec. 28. Another 1.9 million could see their state unemployment insurance run out after the first six months of 2014, and won’t receive additional benefits if the federal program is not renewed. The average weekly check amounts to $300.
Republicans believe a temporary extension, which could cost $6.5 billion, should be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere and want to incorporate GOP-backed job-creation bills into a final package.
Obama and Democrats have countered that extending long-term unemployment insurance would help those out of work and the economy as a whole. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that renewing the program would boost gross domestic product by .2 percent in 2014 and would help create 200,000 jobs. With extra money, the CBO reasons, the unemployed will spend more, therefore allowing businesses to expand and hire more workers.
Many Republicans and conservatives argue that the extra cash provides a disincentive to the long-term unemployed to find work. But that doesn't have much to do with whether employers hire workers. There are bigger problems facing those out of work and looking for a job.
Across the board, the unemployed have had a harder time finding work than before the recession. And it’s even harder for people who have been unemployed for longer than 26 weeks; the likelihood they find a job is just over 10 percent, according to a Roosevelt Institute study. There's evidence that the simple length of their unemployment makes them less desirable to workers.
So extending long-term unemployment benefits could help jobless people in the short term. But the country faces an even more serious challenge in getting these people back to work.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.