What Happened To Unemployment Benefits?

Five months have passed since the expiration of the emergency unemployment benefits program for the long-term unemployed. Amid congressional delays, it's unclear whether those benefits ever will be extended.

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The U.S. economy added 217,000 jobs last month. And that number comes from the government's monthly jobs report, which came out this week. It puts the number of people employed in America, officially, where it was at its peak, in January 2008. Despite that good news, many continue to struggle, especially the long-term unemployed. The Extended Unemployment Benefits program, designed to help them, expired more than five months ago. And, as NPR Tamara Keith reports, political interest in renewing those benefits has waned.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In March, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to temporarily extend unemployment benefits, while a longer-term deal could work out. Had it become law, that temporary extension would've run out last weekend. But it never did become law, not even close. The Senate bill arrived in the House of Representatives with a thud.

SENATOR DEAN HELLER: We don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, at this point.

KEITH: Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is a Republican and co-author of the Senate bill. His state has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country. And he says, he continues to hear from constituents on this issue, all the time. Now he's looking for a new vehicle for an unemployment extension. But truth be told, there's not much momentum for it.

HELLER: I think we'd still have the votes. We'd still be able to push in here, on the Senate side. But without any show of interest on the House side, it makes it very difficult to convince somebody to continue to go through this exercise.

KEITH: Over on the House side, members of Heller's party have shown little urgency. Many have argued, an extension of benefits is unnecessary because the economy is improving. And the unemployment rate is coming down and, now, because it's been so long since the benefits expired. A spokesman for John Boehner says, the Speaker's position hasn't changed since December. Louisiana Rep. Con. Charles Boustany sums up position.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES BOUSTANY: And it would have to be offset. And - but it would also have to be linked to pro-growth policies. Just to simply to extend emergency unemployment benefits, without taking substantive steps to move the economy forward, really doesn't make sense.

KEITH: This issue, that was a front and center Washington pre-occupation, earlier this year, has quietly faded away, with little more than a whimper. But Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project says, it is still front and center for those who have been out of work longer than six months.

CHRISTINE OWENS: The situation could hardly be much worse for them.

KEITH: Although the national unemployment rate is much improved, there are pockets, in states like Nevada, Rhode Island and Michigan, where the labor market is still awful. The average duration of unemployment, in this country, now years after the Great Recession, is around eight months. State benefits cut off at six months or sooner. And Owens says, for the long-term unemployed, the situation is dire.

OWENS: They are absolutely depleting savings, losing their homes, not being able to access medical care they may need.

KEITH: Advocates say, they haven't given up. The White House says the president hasn't given up. Sen. Heller and others in Congress, pushing for the unemployment extension, say they haven't given up either. But looking at Facebook pages set up to rally for an extension, it seems many of those searching for work and hoping for benefits have given up. The comments are getting increasingly dispirited. Tamara Keith, NPR news.


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