Benefit cuts will give pointless pain

Thousands of North Carolina families will feel cuts in unemployment money.

February 14, 2013 

State Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, tried to get his Republican colleagues in the upper chamber to wait until next January to implement their proposed cuts in benefits to North Carolina’s unemployed. His reasoning was as sound as it gets: Jobless people in North Carolina would be eligible for a total of $780 million in federal unemployment money in the last six months of the year, something Congress granted as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal months ago.

This was a humane and economically sound act on the part of the federal government, as it would have strengthened the economy in states such as North Carolina where the unemployment rate remains high. With benefits, the unemployed can survive and do business with local merchants while they seek work. There was a catch, however. States would be eligible for the benefits only if their unemployment rules were unchanged.

Money tossed

But Republicans rejected Nesbitt’s amendment to delay their cuts in benefits (from a maximum of $535 a week to $350 a week) and the length of eligibility (from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 12 to 20 weeks). So they’re throwing away money that could have helped tens of thousands of families. In so doing, they demonstrate their separation from the reality many hard-working North Carolinians face. Are they just unaware?

No, sadly, some Republicans actually buy into the notion that in cutting unemployment benefits, they’re doing the jobless a favor. They believe that offering the help of unemployment benefits over an extended period, even in times of high unemployment and recession, encourages people not to work. This fanciful notion is ridiculous. How many people do these Republicans believe can coast and relax on a weekly unemployment check of about $300, roughly the average in North Carolina?

Chamber’s role

This bit of legislative foolishness was brought to the people of North Carolina thanks to the N.C. Chamber, a business lobby now in the clover with Republicans in charge. The Chamber basically lets Republicans in the legislature know the agenda it would like to see addressed, and it is done.

It’s all in the name of paying off the state’s debt to the federal government for money borrowed to cover unemployment payments, a debt now at $2.5 billion. The money would be paid back with a federal penalty requiring businesses to pay an additional $21 per worker, per year, in unemployment insurance until the debt is clear.

Cutting benefits will mean the debt can be paid three years earlier. Three years? The reason is to pay the debt more quickly and to save employers money while likely putting thousands and thousands of families dependent on unemployment in dire straits indeed.

Gov. Pat McCrory, whom some opponents of the measure encouraged to try to live on $350 a week, supports the change. He could have stood up to his fellow Republicans on Jones Street on behalf of the unemployed. Instead, he left the jobless to the not-so-tender mercies of GOP lawmakers.

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