Point of View

Man-made disaster for long-term unemployed

May 17, 2011 

— We expect disaster relief to flow quickly and efficiently to victims of the recent tornadoes. Yet, another form of disaster relief, planned and paid for, is being withheld from 37,000 desperate North Carolina families by the Republican legislative leadership.

At stake are unemployment benefits for those North Carolinians who have exhausted 79 weeks of unemployment checks. Though federal dollars are already allocated to extend benefits to these needy families, political game-playing - in the form of GOP insistence on a provision that would cause Gov. Beverly Perdue to forfeit any effective voice in shaping the budget of the state she must lead - is blocking them, making it harder for these families to buy food, pay the rent or the mortgage.

Denying our neighbors these necessities is wrong. To understand why it is so especially wrong in the current moment, consider an analogy.

We anticipate and plan for many kinds of storms that take away homes and devastate families. Tornadoes uproot lives and trees in one area and leave the next neighborhood untouched. Because we see the pictures or drive a few blocks, the sight takes our breath away and we want to make it right.

Blue FEMA tarps and yellow bucket trucks allow us to pass, knowing that the government, disaster relief missions and public utilities are on the job. We don't worry about the withdrawal of assistance when the need is clear.

In recent years an economic storm has come to North Carolina. Families need assistance just as they would in any disaster. The storm has laid waste to the equivalent of a good-sized North Carolina city, leaving 37,000 families in its wake who still suffer because of continuous unemployment.

The unremarkable appearance of houses and yards only masks the devastation and despair within every single household. Rent, mortgage, utility, health care and school lunch money are gone. Fear, anger, shame, blame, depression, broken homes and death loot what they still cling to. You just can't see the damage from the street or cover it with a tarp, and there is just no one place to park the church bus.

We know that many are unable to get work despite continuous effort. This is why we make extended unemployment benefits available. Unlike storm aid, this disaster assistance doesn't require risk, sweat or any funds from state or local coffers. Extra weeks of benefits are already bought and paid for.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger have chosen to withhold relief in a thoughtless effort to force the governor to sacrifice her voice and role in the budget process. Republican legislators offered not a single voice of dissent from what is cold, cavalier and wrong.

What if President Barack Obama had withheld the state of emergency" declaration for North Carolina communities leveled by the funnel clouds until our congressional delegation agreed to vote for "Obamacare"? Imagine the outcry, the red-faced, political chest-beating at such a shameful hostage taking. More than a few would see it as revealing of the president's character. And it would be.

Holding 37,000 hungry families hostage is exactly the same thing, and equally wrong.

The relationship between the issue of unemployment benefits and the governor's veto is as imaginary as that between a health care plan and tornado benefits. But there is a common truth that the parallel scenarios share. They are both a fair test of the character of our leaders. They separate those who care and act from those who just make speeches and wait for applause at the convention.

What type of leaders do we have in the General Assembly? Their actions on unemployment benefits will speak louder than any words.

Harry Payne, now senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center, has served as a state legislator and as N.C. labor commissioner. He was chairman of the Employment Security Commission from 2001 to 2009.

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