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In our opinion: Extend unemployment benefits

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Extending unemployment benefits is not an ideal answer to sluggish job growth, but it is the humane thing to do.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

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President Obama has asked Congress to immediately extend unemployment benefits for those out of work for more than six months – something lawmakers should agree to as an act of compassion and a recognition that administration policies have failed.

Arguments against the extension are almost entirely in the realm of the philosophical and outside the sphere of pragmatism. An extension would be expensive, and must be temporary and short-term. But the economy has yet to recover to the point where robust job growth eliminates the need for extended benefits, which provides up to 47 weeks of supplemental unemployment insurance payments. The argument that it encourages a culture of reliance on government handouts is not backed by persuasive evidence, or common sense.

There are currently about 11 million people out of work while there are an estimated 3.9 million available jobs. Benefits for about 1.3 million Americans, including 3,000 Utahns, have expired, and without an extension those people and their families face severe hardship.

“These are people who want jobs and want to work,” a spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services told The Deseret News. “We are committed to doing everything we can to connect these people with jobs.”

Unemployment benefits are typically available for up to 26 months. The Bush Administration moved at the beginning of the 2008 recession to allow for an extension, which expired at the end of 2013. Should Congress not renew the extension when it reconvenes, millions of people and their dependents would be unable to afford basic necessities and fall to a place of destitution that would carry long-term social costs.

While 1.3 million workers is not a lot in comparison to the overall workforce, the economy has yet to improve to a point where job growth is robust. That may change soon, but while government figures show the economy added 2.1 million jobs in 2013 as of November, about half of those were in low-wage or part-time positions. Even those jobs are quickly snatched up as the unemployed seek any way possible to earn money.

Administration policies and programs have not helped spur job growth. The president has continued to stand in the way of construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which would create many high-paying jobs. His signature health care plan, under the Affordable Care Act, continues to create confusion and uncertainty in markets as businesses decide how to react. And the administration’s drive to increase the minimum wage would eliminate jobs, particularly for the poorest Americans and those looking for entry-level experience. Extending unemployment benefits is not an ideal answer to sluggish job growth. It would cost an estimated $25 billion. Policy changes and greater market certainty would be better. But it is the humane thing to do for those who have been doing all they can to find work without success.

The notion that large numbers of the unemployed prefer to live on government largesse is more anecdotal than factually substantive. The benefits are at a level that appropriately provides a short-term safety net, not an ongoing opportunity to languish in a condition that can rationally be viewed as comfortable.

Many observers predict real economic growth in 2014 despite administration policies. We hope they are correct. Given recent positive economic indicators, an extension should be made short-term and be eliminated as soon as growth becomes robust.

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