Yesterday, tens of thousands of Georgians lost their unemployment benefits. The benefits went away because, even though the House and Senate were able to reach a budget agreement, they did not agree to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. By the end of 2014, a total of 164,700 Georgians will lose their unemployment benefits due to the expiration of the program.
It's true that some unemployed Georgians who filed their initial unemployment claims in 2011 have received benefits for as many as 99 weeks. But, those who filed initial claims in 2013 were limited to 46 weeks' worth of benefits. So, some of Georgians who lost benefits yesterday did not receive benefits for a full year.
Nonetheless, the debate over the program's merits has shone the light on a very real inflection point for lawmakers and others working to get the country's economy back on track.
In Georgia, people who receive unemployment benefits must contact the Department of Labor every week and show proof that they will be recalled to their past job within 6 weeks, are looking for another job or are enrolled in an approved training program in order to keep receiving benefits. On the one hand, it is mind-boggling for some folks to think that a person who has seriously looked for work for 99 weeks cannot find a job. In their minds, not having a job after 99 weeks suggests that the person was never serious about finding employment, is lazy or gaming the system.
On the other hand, there is evidence that suggests there still are not enough jobs available to accommodate all of the job seekers. National averages indicate that there are 3 applicants for every job currently available in the United States. Folks who cite this statistic make the argument that you can look for a job as hard as you want for as long as you want and still be unemployed because the overall supply of jobs is low.
Our lawmakers will never be able to agree on how best to use public policy to address the issue of long term unemployment until they can reconcile these opposing viewpoints.
If the chronically unemployed are truly gaming the system, cutting off extended benefits was the right thing to do. However, if the job market is still struggling to recover -- and I believe that it is, even the best qualified applicant cannot get a job where there is none. In that case, an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is not just the right thing to do, it is necessary to rebuild the economy.
Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.