Thankfully, earlier this week Congress fulfilled its (minimum) obligation to the long-term unemployed by passing an extension of federal unemployment benefits as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal.
But while that drama in Washington, D.C. comes to a close – for now – Republican legislators in North Carolina and their well-funded backers have a plan to drastically cut unemployment insurance for thousands of Tarheel families.
The proposal, first revealed in early December, would cut weekly benefit checks from $506 to $350. The benefit periods would be limited from 26 weeks to a sliding scale between 12 and 20 weeks. These changes constitute an overhaul of the state’s whole unemployment system:
"This is probably one of the most radical, if not the most radical, proposals in the country," said Bill Rowe, advocacy director for the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based nonprofit.
The plan is similar to recommendations made by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, who, not at all coincidentally, contributed to the campaigns of 17 out of 20 members of the legislative committee that produced the plan, according to IndyWeek.
But regardless of why Republican legislators are proposing these cuts, that fact remains that they would be devastating to families in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate is already above the national average of 9.1 percent.
Even at the current 26 weeks, unemployment benefits aren’t nearly sufficient. As of November 2012, the average length of unemployment in the United States was 40 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the longest average unemployment length in the 60 years the BLS has been recording data.
And those statistics translate into real pain for families, even without the cuts Republicans are proposing. 1 in 10 children in North Carolina lived with a parent who was unemployed this past year. 118,000 children in the state lived with parents who were unemployed for six months or more.
Now is the time for jobs, not cuts:
MaryBe McMillan, secretary for the state chapter of AFL-CIO, says when the economy was booming in the late '90s, employers got a tax break. "And now they want to rebuild the fund on the backs of workers," she says. "I think that's dead wrong."
Unemployment benefits do not only provide crucial assistance to those most in need. They also constitute a stimulus to the local economy, as unemployed workers use the benefits as soon as they come in to pay bills, fill up their gas tanks, shop for groceries, and make the necessary purchases to keep themselves and their families afloat. Taking a chunk of that money away, as Republicans legislators are proposing, only serves to hurt North Carolina’s recovering economy.