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Anger Mounts Over Democrats' Refusal to Address Jobless Aid Crisis

Progressive critics warn failure to bolster the unemployment system during the pandemic "is a shocking dereliction of responsibility."

Local residents receive food during a food distribution event in New York City on May 26, 2021., (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank for New York City)

Worker justice advocates are growing increasingly furious over the national Democratic leadership's refusal to act after more than nine million people across the U.S. were thrown off unemployment insurance earlier this week, an unprecedented aid cut that took effect in the middle of a surging pandemic and persistent economic crisis.

The Biden administration and congressional Democrats had been aware of the massive benefit cliff for months, but there was hardly any push on Capitol Hill for an extension of the trio of federal unemployment insurance (UI) programs that lapsed on Labor Day—slashing benefits for roughly 9.5 million unemployed workers.

In recent weeks, the Biden White House repeatedly made clear that it supported the expiration of a $300-per-week federal boost to state-level benefits and said it would do nothing to stop the Republican-led states that ended the UI supplement prematurely.

While administration officials said in a recent letter that President Joe Biden believes the coronavirus pandemic "has exposed serious problems in our UI system that require immediate reform," the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday left UI reform out of a package of policy measures that it hopes to include in the emerging budget reconciliation package.

"This is a shocking dereliction of responsibility and every committee member should be ashamed," Rachel Deutsch of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) tweeted Tuesday. "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) must step in."

Jennifer Epps-Addison, CPD Action's co-executive director, echoed that message in a statement Tuesday night, declaring that "it's time for Congress to step up and ensure that every person in this country gets the support they need to not only survive this pandemic, but to thrive long term."

"Congress has known for decades that our UI system does not adequately support workers or stabilize our economy during recessions," said Epps-Addison. "Just this week, 9.5 million working people lost their lifeline when Congress allowed pandemic unemployment benefits to expire—the largest benefit cliff in history—while unemployment rates in communities of color remain shockingly high. To pretend that we can 'build back better' without tackling this broken and racist system is absurd."

"President Biden urged Chairman Neal to take up the issue of long-term UI reform as part of the reconciliation process—but today, the Ways and Means Committee ignored his call," Epps-Addison added. "Speaker Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer must step up and ensure meaningful UI reforms are included in this reconciliation package."

The People's Policy Project (PPP), a left-wing think tank, estimated last week that around 35 million people live in households that will be impacted by the federal unemployment cuts, which are expected to leave more than seven million jobless people with no UI benefits at all. Nearly three million others will lose the $300-per-week federal boost, forcing them to get by on state benefits that average less than $400 a week.

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"Due to severe shortcomings in state UI programs, Congress had to create emergency pandemic unemployment programs in the CARES Act to offset barriers to eligibility, too-short payment durations, and inadequate benefit levels. These three pressing issues are priority UI fixes that can be taken on in the reconciliation budget," Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), said Tuesday. "It is a sad and avoidable policy choice to leave unemployed people across the country without needed support."

"Failure to do anything at this critical juncture," Dixon added, "is a betrayal of the workers who have suffered so badly over the course of this crisis, and those who will need the program in the future."

Travis Curry, a 34-year-old freelance photographer who is set to lose all of his UI benefits, told the New York Times that "to just cut people off, it's ridiculous and it's unethical and it's evil."

In addition to the devastating effects the UI cuts could have on millions of jobless workers who are already struggling to afford food and other basic expenses, economists and commentators have also voiced concerns about the broader economic consequences of lawmakers' decision to let the emergency programs expire. Before they ended, the federal UI programs were pumping billions of dollars into the economy each week.

"We've got this fragile economic recovery and now we're going to cut income from people who need it, and we are pulling back dollars out of an economy that is still pretty unsteady," Elizabeth Ananat, an economist at Barnard College, said in an interview with the Times earlier this week.

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. economy remains more than five million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels, and the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant appears to be taking its toll on hiring.

In a column on Tuesday, The Week's Ryan Cooper argued that "if I were the Democratic Party, I would be reversing these [UI] cuts immediately."

"Rule of thumb: A program to address an emergency should last at least as long as the emergency itself," Cooper wrote. "If it was necessary to pass a pandemic rescue back on March 11 when there were about 55,000 coronavirus cases per day, it stands to reason that we should still need those same rescue programs when cases are running about 160,000 per day."

"If Democrats had any sense," Cooper added, "they would add an extension of pandemic benefits to the reconciliation package currently under discussion, and pass it immediately."

Prior to the Labor Day expiration of the emergency UI programs, 26 states—each led by a Republican governor except Louisiana—cut off the federal benefits early, arguing that the aid was dissuading people from returning to the workforce.

But subsequent research showed that slashing the benefits did virtually nothing to boost hiring, vindicating experts who disputed Republican leaders' talking points. The premature cuts did, however, dramatically reduce jobless workers' incomes—a possible preview of what's to come now that the federal programs have expired nationwide.

"You cannot say canceling unemployment benefits gets people back to work when we have the data to prove it doesn't," Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) tweeted Tuesday. "What it will do is make life even harder for the single mom who's barely making ends meet while trying to balance childcare and staying healthy during a pandemic."

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.