DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Speaking of numbers important to the economy, let's hear more about the year-end budget agreement in Congress. The bipartisan deal, which still has to clear Senate, would fund the government through most of 2015. But there's one thing notably missing from the proposal: a measure to extend emergency unemployment benefits past this year. It's something the White House pushed for. Those who have been receiving these benefits for six months could stop receiving checks as of December 28th. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that this might satisfy some fiscal conservatives, but it has some economists and many unemployed workers worried.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Sheri Minkoff is about to lose the only source of income she's been able to find in nearly a year.
SHERI MINKOFF: I'm not worried about a career at this point. I just want a job.
NOGUCHI: This is Minkoff's second time on unemployment in five years. The first time, she lost her job as a director of a nonprofit that had invested money with convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.
MINKOFF: I had gone through all my retirement, all my savings, and my son was working to help support us, my high school student. So, you know, we tried everything under the sun. It's not a fun thing, living on unemployment.
NOGUCHI: Two years later, the job she found as a volunteer coordinator at a domestic violence shelter in Pittsburgh paid far less. But that, too, lost funding at the beginning of this year. And despite working six days a week trying to find a job, the 50-year-old Minkoff says she can't even get a call back.
MINKOFF: If I stop receiving unemployment, not only will I be homeless, I won't have a computer. I will lose my car. I won't be able to job hunt. I won't be able to have electricity to run my computer to job hunt.
NOGUCHI: There are over a million people like Minkoff who have received unemployment benefits for longer than the usual 26 weeks. Their benefits expire at the end of next week. Long-term unemployment is a lasting legacy of the Great Recession. Five years ago, the Bush administration and Congress extended jobless benefits to up to 99 weeks. Gradual improvement in the labor market has brought the number of long-term jobless down from the peak two years ago. But still, one-and-a-half million Americans have been unemployed for over two years. Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for workers.
CHRISTINE OWENS: Those who have been unemployed the longest face so many obstacles, not the least of which is a perception on the part of many employers that there must be a reason they've been out of work for so long, and they must not be really up to snuff.
NOGUCHI: Michael Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He notes the percentage of the workforce that's long-term unemployed stands at 2.6 percent.
MICHAEL STRAIN: That's just much higher than what we've seen in the past when we've terminated emergency federal UI. It's twice as high as in the past three recessions. And so my first argument would be that long-term unemployment is just much too high right now to terminate these benefits.
NOGUCHI: He says it may even make more fiscal sense, in the long run, to extend unemployment insurance - or UI - benefits.
STRAIN: Some of them are going to end up on government welfare rolls. It's very possible that extending emergency federal UI could save the government money over the next 20 or 30 years by preventing some people who otherwise might end up on Social Security disability insurance, or something like that, from going on it.
NOGUCHI: Disability insurance is, of course, for those with disabilities. But the number of people receiving it increases in a tight job market. And this year, that trend has continued. Strain says he also believes there are solutions beyond just cutting checks, like creating transportation programs for those living in far-out suburbs to get to work, or giving people money to move to better job markets.
STRAIN: Right now, I think we should think of long-term unemployment as an economic problem, sure, but also kind of as a social failure. Thinking about it that way adds urgency to the need to actually try and be creative and come up with solutions to help these folks.
NOGUCHI: But there's no immediate policy help on the table right now for those whose benefits are about to run out. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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