Unemployment benefits dominate the agenda

Stephanie Ransom is 30, single and the mother of a 3-year-old girl. She has thousands of dollars in credit-card debt and suffers from a rare thoracic disorder that causes severe pain in her neck and shoulders.

In July, Ransom lost the job she’d had for nine years at a parts manufacturer in Walworth, Wis., and has not been able to find another one. That prolonged joblessness has become the defining feature of her life.

“For the people who are struggling, who can’t get a job out there because they don’t have the qualifications or who have to explain that they don’t have certain qualifications — it’s hard,” she said.

This puts Ransom center stage in the political drama about whether Congress should extend unemployment benefits that began expiring just after Christmas for millions of people. Democrats favor an extension, while Republicans are reluctant to pass one without a plan to pay for it.

The issue has dominated the political agenda in recent weeks, and President Obama called on Congress on Friday to extend the benefits as he announced that hundreds of businesses have agreed not to discriminate against people who have been unemployed for long periods of time.

Who are the long-term unemployed?

“Giving up on the unemployed creates a drag on the economy we cannot tolerate,” Obama said.

Democratic and Republican senators have begun working on a new proposal to extend the benefits after not advancing a similar plan a few weeks ago. In a key concession, Democrats are now proposing to pay for the $6 billion extension with “pension smoothing,” which would temporarily increase tax collections from employers by allowing them to pay less now into employee pension funds.

A handful of GOP senators are open to the idea but also want to be able to offer other amendments to the plan. If an agreement is reached, votes could be held as soon as next week, said aides familiar with the talks.

As the talks continue, people such as Ransom who have been out of work longer than six months are caught in the middle.

“Congress has to act. We’re the only barrier right now to making sure that people get these benefits,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said after meeting with Ransom and other unemployed people last week at Blackhawk Technical College.

The federal government and states historically have provided out-of-work Americans with up to 26 weeks of unemployment insurance that is paid for with payroll taxes. But Congress has voted several times to extend the federal benefits, at times for up to 99 weeks, since the economic downturn in 2008. The latest federal extension expired just after Christmas, and aid has now ended for more than 1.6 million long-term unemployed workers who had been receiving payments for more than 26 weeks.

Pocan thinks that showcasing the people who would suffer may encourage his GOP colleagues to approve an extension.

“We need to put the human face on this,” he said. “It’s one thing to say that 1,600 a week in Wisconsin — 72,000 people a week across the country — are going to lose benefits, but it’s another thing to talk about real stories from real people.”

That’s where people like Ransom come in; her problems are real. In the weeks since her benefits expired, her car was destroyed by a hit-and-run driver. And after years of surgery had brought her pain under control, it flared up again a few weeks ago when she slipped and fell on ice.

“I’m going to keep trying my hardest and complete my schooling and hopefully better my education,” she said. “I hope that unemployment [benefits] will extend for a couple of more months so that it will help me get up on my feet, and get a vehicle and help me get transportation to find the job that I need.”

“All I can do is keep my head up,” she added later.

But beneficiaries nationwide understand that they are caught in the crossfire of a huge political fight, and that powerful arguments are being made against extending their benefits.

“I’m assuming it’s just because there’s too much money being paid out,” said Danielle MacDonald, 25, of Monona, Wis. “There are a lot of people who abuse unemployment — people who don’t want to go out and get a job. It can be a burden on taxpayers.”

She lost her job with a medical device company in October. Unless she finds another job or Congress extends the benefits, the $300 check she receives each week will stop coming in May. Her first child is due in March.

MacDonald recently appeared at another event held by Pocan to push for an extension. She doesn’t think she’s being an unreasonable burden. “I’m paying taxes out of my unemployment,” she said. “And unemployment is money that I put in.”

Then there’s Denise Kanyer, 50, who lost her trucking job in North Dakota last summer. A string of rejections from potential employers forced her to leave her home in Charlotte, N.C., and move to a motel room near her sister in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Her unemployment benefits ended on Dec. 28.

“I’ve never seen Congress turn their backs on Americans like this. Never,” Kanyer said. “They’re not doing what they said they were going to do when they were elected into office.”

In Edgewater, Md., Shamus Baxter, 33, has started keeping closer tabs on Congress in recent weeks since his benefits expired. He lost his job at an industrial hygiene plant in June, and said his insurance payments ended in December.

“They passed their $1.1 trillion so they can keep working while they make about $170,000 a year,” he said. “None of them could live off my $40,000 a year salary. . . . I think it’s hilarious that they take another recess while I sit here struggling, hoping that if they get back next week and do something that my unemployment will kick back. They made sure they’d be working for the next year, but they don’t care about people who are struggling.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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