WASHINGTON — As unemployment spikes, the cost of compassion is going up too.
By as much as $100 billion.
That's the potential price of a push by Democrats in Congress to continue providing extra help to the jobless beyond the core 26-week unemployment insurance package provided under permanent law.
The jaw-dropping numbers combine the approximately $85 billion cost of continuing emergency benefits through 2010 for the long-term unemployed – jobless more than six months – plus an estimated $15 billion to continue subsidies to help pay health insurance premiums.
Even before the last new round of extended benefits in November, the cost of unemployment compensation was estimated by the White House to exceed $140 billion for fiscal 2010, which began in October. Just two years ago – when the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent in contrast to the current 10.2 percent – the cost of unemployment benefits was only $43 billion.
Extending unemployment benefits again is an obvious solution to Democrats preaching compassion for the long-term jobless, as well as to economists who say cutting off the flow of money could harm the economy.
"This is the most effective way to get money into the economy. It's given to people who are simply out of money," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a key supporter. "They're spending it. They're not socking it away in a mattress somewhere."
Several temporary benefit extensions dating from mid-2008 are set to expire Dec. 31. In January alone, an estimated 1 million people will lose benefits as their extended coverage runs out. By March, 3 million people will have lost benefits averaging about $315 a week.
Also expiring is a program subsidizing 65 percent of insurance premiums for unemployed people who sign up for a continuation of health benefits formerly provided by their employer under the so-called COBRA program. The nine months of COBRA subsidies and the additional weeks of unemployment benefits were both core pieces of February's economic stimulus plan.
The COBRA health insurance subsidies expire Dec. 1 for those who signed onto the program when it first started last winter, though people who get fired before Jan. 1 are eligible for the full nine-month subsidy. People on unemployment would be able to finish out their present "tier" of benefits but would be ineligible for any of the recently passed additional coverage.
The benefits extension is under discussion among top Democratic leaders. While there's no agreement on a specific plan, there's a lot of sentiment behind a full-year extension, congressional aides say. The staggering cost, however, could preclude passing it.
With the budget deficit spiraling out of control, deficit hawks are certain to balk at the measure's price tag. And the White House, which is signaling that it is going to focus next year on trying to rein in the deficit, is not endorsing a full-year extension of benefits. Budget office spokesman Tom Gavin would only say the administration supports some extension beyond Dec. 31.
"We're past the point where anything can be deficit financed without some plan to pay for it," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "It has to come with offsets."
Many economists say increasing or extending unemployment payments is among the most efficient ways to jump-start the economy. It's easy to do and the people getting the benefits typically spend the money quickly. With the economy in a fragile recovery, cutting off benefits could be harmful.
"It would significantly raise the risk of falling back into recession next year," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.
Not all economists agree, however, especially if the benefits are financed by adding to the nation's $12 trillion debt. There's also evidence that unemployment insurance actually raises the jobless rate slightly because some people don't look for work as diligently as they do when they're on it.
"The longer you extend unemployment benefits, the longer you extend average job searches," said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. "It makes it more comfortable for people to be unemployed."
While most Republicans supported a recent bill adding 14 to 20 weeks of extra benefits for those who had exhausted payments lasting as long as a year and a half, many are likely to resist the upcoming measure.
"Calling more government spending and more debt a 'jobs package' is laughable, and the Democrats' frantic push for more of the same is yet another acknowledgment that their trillion-dollar stimulus isn't working," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The startling price tag of extending the benefits is due to two factors: the sharp spike in the jobless numbers and several layers of additional weeks of benefits that have been approved by Congress since June 2008.
The core benefit is 26 weeks, with up to 20 additional weeks in states with high unemployment. States collectively are already projected to run a $57 billion deficit in the core program in 2010. The federal government is already obligated to lend them the money to cover that gap.
Additional tiers of benefits were added in 2008. February's stimulus measure not only renewed those benefits but added $25 a week to every unemployment check.