Fitzsimon File

An anxious holiday for the unemployed

This promises to an unusually stressful holiday season for 70,000 people in North Carolina who are not only out of work but stand to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year if Congress doesn’t extend them. Many of them are veterans and older workers.

These are people who have been unemployed and actively looking for work for months and using their modest unemployment check to buy food for their families and put gas in their car to make it to a job interview if they are lucky enough to get one.

Getting past the interview is another matter altogether. Nationally there are still almost five unemployed workers for every job opening. And that is not going to change overnight.

The N.C. Budget and Tax Center reports that more 500,000 jobs would have to be created in North Carolina to bring the state back pre-recession employment levels. Almost half the unemployed workers nationwide have been looking for a job for more than six months.

People are going to need extra help for a while and Congress needs to act soon to make sure they get it. It simply doesn’t make sense to tell a 57-year-old laid off human resources professional in eastern North Carolina that they are on their own and they just need to try harder to find a job. They are trying every day.

There’s a persistent and disturbing mythology on the Right that extending unemployment benefits provides a disincentive for people to look for work.

Many Republicans in North Carolina made that argument last spring when the General Assembly held up an extension of benefits by trying to use them to blackmail Governor Perdue into accepting their budget recommendations.

The suggestion that unemployment benefits make it less likely that people will look for a job is absurd on its face, not only because it’s based on the offensive suggestion that people don’t want to work.

It is just not that much money.

Nationwide, the average unemployment benefit comes to roughly a third of what the worker had been earning. There’s no incentive there. Nobody’s getting rich on their unemployment.

What the benefits actually do is provide a minimal level of support to make it possible for people to survive while they try to find a job.

Extending the benefits not only helps workers and their families, it helps the economy. The Economic Policy Institute reports that the $45 billion cost of extending the federally funded benefits translates into a $72 billion positive economic impact.

That means jobs, as many as 560,000 that would be created or saved by an extension of the benefits into 2012, 18,000 of them in North Carolina.

It’s the most immediate stimulus Congress could pass, putting money directing into the economy.

People who receive unemployment benefits spend them immediately in their communities. Nobody’s socking anything away.

Even if Republicans can’t seem to put aside their demeaning stereotypes and offensive claims about the unemployed, they ought to understand that extending the benefits jumpstarts economic activity.

Time is running out for 70,000 workers and their families in North Carolina. Congress needs to help them now.