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Out of Work, Out of Benefits

A bank economist got the bad news after lunch on Monday. He will lose his job. An urban planner got the bad news two months ago. He is frantically trying to rent his condo. A promotional copywriter, who was laid off in December and has exhausted her unemployment benefits, has moved in with her mother. Multiply this misery by 8.5 million Americans--the number out of work.

Nearly half of these workers, including an increasing number of middle-class and once-affluent Americans, are expected to exhaust their 26 weeks of unemployment checks by the end of this year; about 3.5 million may use up their benefits before they find jobs. It is taking much longer to find work as hard-pressed industries downsize and struggling businesses reduce their staffs.

President Bush has signed legislation that would temporarily provide up to 20 weeks of additional unemployment checks in states hardest hit by the recession. He has refused, however, to declare the budget emergency necessary to get the money moving.

The budget agreement requires that new programs be financed by a tax increase or spending cuts or through a presidential declaration of an emergency. That largely sensible safeguard checks spending that could inflate swollen deficits.

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Regular benefits are funded by payroll taxes that pay for unemployment insurance. There is a surplus in the trust fund. Like other surpluses it has been used to reduce the deficit and, under the budget agreement, can’t be used to extend the benefits. Reducing the deficit is vital. But there are emergencies--like helping the Kurds--that justify exceptions. Is helping out-of-work Americans any less compelling?

By a margin that is nearly veto-proof, the House voted Tuesday to permanently extend benefits. In states with jobless rates of 8% or higher, the bill would provide up to 20 more weeks of checks; California, where the rate is now about 7%, would be eligible for 15 more weeks.

The Senate is expected to take up similar legislation on Thursday. Fast action in the Senate--and Bush’s signature--would speed help to jobless Americans. A few extra unemployment checks can mean the difference between losing a night’s sleep and one’s home.


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