Transcript: Testimony of Christine Owens on the expiring federal unemployment insurance before the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee on Dec. 5, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony of Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, on the expiring federal unemployment insurance before the House Democratic Steering & Policy Committee on Dec. 5, 2013:

…We really appreciate the committee holding this important hearing today on what is an urgent matter for many millions of Americans, who will lose their unemployment benefits over the holidays, more than 3 million by the 1st of July, if Congress fails to act to renew the emergency unemployment program.

A written statement is in the record and I’ll keep my remarks brief.

First, I want to emphasize, as Congressman Levins stressed, although the economy has improved, it is far from a healthy economy that provides job opportunities for all that need and want to work, particularly the long-term unemployed.

Unemployment remains higher than it was before the recession. It has ticked down a little bit since the last time the program was renewed but in reality that’s because of labor force drop-outs as opposed to a real decline in unemployment. If we included all the missing workers in our unemployment count, unemployment today would be 11%. This is not the kind of economy in which people struggling with long-term unemployment can find jobs.

There are still officially 3 unemployed workers for every single job opening, which means each month 2 out of 3 workers is completely out of luck when it comes to finding a job.

Secondly, I want to talk a little bit about the demographics about the long-term unemployed because I think this is really important, and the demographics are partly a function of who lost jobs first and have suffered the most.

While unemployment has cut across every demographic group in our economy, the workers most affected have been older – most affected by long-term unemployment – have been older workers, workers of color, and workers with less education. And that’s not particularly surprising because these are the workers who, even in a robust economy, experience the greatest difficulty in getting jobs in the first place for a variety of reasons, including discrimination. The very fact of long-term unemployment is affecting these workers’ ability to get new jobs.

I know many of you are co-sponsors on legislation that would prohibit discrimination against the long-term unemployed, which is certainly a measure we would also encourage you to take up as soon as you can. But today’s focus is obviously on extending the benefits.

And finally, I want to stress again the importance of renewing the program not just because of the workers who will be affected, and you will hear from them, but for the economy overall, for the labor market overall, and for our society overall.

As Congressman Levin, again, pointed out this morning, we know that unemployment insurance is one of the most effective economic stimuli that we have.

CBO scored this just the other day and said that if the program is renewed, it could account for as much as 0.3% in GDP growth next year, an additional 300,000 new jobs. Now, obviously if it’s not renewed, it will have the opposite effect; that’s very damaging to our economy. Estimates are that every dollar invested in unemployment insurance pays back $1.60 to $2 in added growth of GDP.

Secondly, we know that unemployment insurance is an effective anti-poverty tool, and we care about that in this country. The Census Bureau reported that in 2012, unemployment insurance alone kept 1.7 million Americans out of poverty, including close to half a million children. As Congresswoman DeLauro has said, it is scandalous that in the richest nation in the world that 1 in 6 Americans is living in poverty. And the least that this Congress can do is make sure that it doesn’t exacerbate that problem by cutting off the vital income that millions of Americans rely upon.

And finally, I want to just put to rest the canard that long-term unemployment insurance keeps people unemployed.

Number one, that reflects that people who say that don’t understand how unemployment is officially counted. One is counted as unemployed if one is looking for work. The long-term program requires people to look for work. So in fact it has the opposite effect – it keeps people in the labor market, it causes them to be more aggressive in their job search, and it gives the resources they need to stay afloat while they’re looking for jobs.

If we want to reduce unemployment, sure, cut off this program. But we will reduce unemployment then by having more people completely drop out of the labor force and that is not the recipe for a prosperous economy that works for all of us.

Thank you very much.

Q&A responses:

…The city of Madison has just adopted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against people simply because they’re unemployed, joining a couple of other cities that have done so. And Congresswoman DeLauro is sponsor of legislation to that effect in the House.

…It’s interesting that today is the same day that there will be strikes by fast food workers around the country. The reality is that wages have declined for workers in this country.

NELP did a study that we released earlier this year that looked at 700 some odd occupations and divided them into fifths, and we found that except for the highest paid occupations there had been significant wage decline over the last 3 years and the wage decline has been the greatest in the lowest paid occupations. And so there is no question, whatever the reason – whether it’s intentional manipulation of wages, whether it’s the law of supply and demand in a labor market in which there are way more job seekers than there are jobs – wages are going down for America’s workers.

And that’s why you see someone like Lisa or Vera or Stan – educated, experienced, long-tenured workers who can only find jobs that pay far less than the jobs they have lost.

And I think that that is something we really need to think about in terms of the future consequences of this crisis. That this is – it will be a huge crisis if the program is not renewed. There’s no question that will affect millions upon million of people. But long-term unemployment has long-term consequences and builds deficits into our future and we need to take those into account as you all craft policy and as we as advocates promote policy. This is not just an immediate problem. It’s a long-term crisis for our country.

…There is legislation pending in Congress – Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act – which would reverse an outrageous Supreme Court decision. We would urge the members – I’m sure you all support it – passing it would be incredibly important.

Strengthening enforcement resources for the EEOC, which enforces the Age Discrimination Employment Act.

And then I think just sort of lending one’s public voice to the fact that age discrimination is alive and well.

As I noted earlier, among the groups that are disproportionately represented in the long-term unemployed, it is older workers who are really in quite a jam because they don’t have a lot of years ahead of them even if they could jobs quickly to rebuild their pensions, replenish their savings, et cetera. So I think elevating the issue publicly and making the case.

I want to say that we actually hired a long-term unemployed worker a few years ago who is almost as old as I am, and he is a rock star. We could not be happier. If we had 15 positions, I’d hire 15 of Mitches because, as Lisa says, they’re great.


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