July's changes to unemployment benefits will punish the jobless

June 15, 2013 

Paul Moore has kept on struggling to find work. But in a state with the nation’s fifth-highest unemployment rate, he’s had to rely on unemployment benefits. Now, at the end of this month, Moore and other North Carolinians who have been unemployed for extended periods will lose those benefits, the victims of Republicans in the General Assembly who have changed the unemployment laws.

In one of lawmakers’ first acts this year, they voted to reduce the maximum state benefits a laid-off worker can receive by roughly a third and to reduce the maximum weeks of benefits. As a result, on July 1, the state’s unemployed become ineligible for federal benefits that serve as a safety net after state benefits have run out because federal law requires that states keep their current level of benefits to qualify.

Before state lawmakers took this hurtful and impractical step, unemployed workers could receive up to 26 weeks of state-funded benefits. Then the federal program would provide as many as 47 weeks of benefits for those still unable to find jobs.

Republican lawmakers cut maximum benefits from the state from $535 a week to $350. Most on unemployment receive less. Moore, for instance, gets about $300. He, like most on unemployment, is trying to find work. But it is difficult, particularly when an unemployed person lacks degrees or skills for high-tech employment. So now he faces the loss of his home.

Not their fault

This predicament came about in part because businesses in the 1990s got a series of breaks in the amount of unemployment taxes they had to pay. Then, when the recession put so many people out of work, the state lacked enough money to pay unemployment benefits and so it borrowed $2 billion from the federal government. It’s a debt that could be paid off in a few years if businesses paid unemployment taxes assessed by the federal government of $21 per worker, per year.

That’s not much, but Republican lawmakers decided they wanted to pay off the debt early (part of their anti-federal government philosophy) so they dramatically cut benefits instead. That $20 million a week that the unemployed will stop receiving and spending on July 1 also will be lost to the state’s economy.

The contention from conservatives that cutting off unemployment benefits will “encourage” people to look for work is a cynical and fanciful view. Do these people really think that the unemployed with families can live and provide for those families on the unemployment money they receive? Do they really believe that these individuals would rather not work and receive bare subsistence instead of having a job?

Reality and the road

And while they are looking, with no money coming in, how are they and their children, and there are many children involved, supposed to survive?

For that, Republicans have no answer. Legislating by ideology is like that. It’s full of sweeping characterizations – people sitting around on public assistance, buying big TVs, living it up – but the reality is a lot different. It’s about not buying clothes for children, depending on churches and other agencies for food, living in shelters. It is about hunger. It is about having to move around to live with friends or relatives. This may be a recession to many, but for those who are about to lose their unemployment benefits, this is about to become a Depression.

And it is all maddeningly unnecessary. The state could have postponed the changes in unemployment benefits until next year and allowed those dependent on them to continue getting help for months. The Republicans rejected even that compromise.

That callousness will hit not only the working poor. Many in the middle class also will feel the sting. Chances are, the GOP legislators who brought about this pending crisis will be hearing from a broad-based constituency when the realities of these cuts arrive. They may be surprised to learn that the ranks of the devastated unemployed include people they know, perhaps even their neighbors.

Then, perhaps, they will greet reality face to face.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service