Seventy-three percent of voters want Congress to keep the extended unemployment benefits put in place to fight the recession, according to a new poll commissioned by the National Employment Law Project, and they don't care about the deficit.
With unemployment expected to hover above nine percent for the foreseeable future, nearly three out of four voters say "it is too early to start cutting back benefits for workers who lost their jobs."
"There is deep public support for continuing the federal unemployment programs at a time when unemployment is at 9.6 percent and millions are still out of work," said NELP director Christine Owens in a statement. "Support for continuing these programs trumps concerns about the deficit -- which should be no surprise when nearly half of all unemployed workers have been looking for work for more than six months but have not been able to find jobs."
Congress has just two weeks from Monday to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits before they expire at the end of the month. It will be the third time the benefits have needed reauthorization in the past year. Each of the three previous reauthorizations met stiff resistance from congressional deficit hawks, and the most recent reauthorization was delayed for nearly two months as 2.5 million people had their benefits interrupted.
According to the poll, the public doesn't share the deficit concerns voiced by Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress. Only 24 percent of voters agreed that, "With the federal deficit over one trillion dollars, it is time for the government to start cutting back on unemployment benefits for the unemployed." Sixty-seven percent said the programs should continue until there is a significant drop in the jobless rate.
"The breadth of the support was pretty striking to us," said Guy Molyneux of polling firm Hart Research Associates. Molyneux noted that 55 percent of Republicans want the benefits kept in place, compared with 83 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Independents.
During recessions Congress routinely gives the unemployed extra weeks of federally funded benefits on top of the 26 weeks provided by states. The programs in place provide up to 73 additional weeks in some states, which surpasses the previous high of 55 weeks during the recession of the early 1980s. Federal benefits have never been dropped with a national unemployment rate above 7.2 percent.
Owens stressed that the primary concern is reauthorizing the existing programs, not giving extra help to people who have already run out of benefits. There has been some confusion over what's at stake in the next two weeks.
"What we are talking about now is maintaining the status quo through 2011 and not adding new weeks of benefits."
NELP has estimated that two million long-term unemployed will prematurely stop receiving benefits by the end of the year if Congress doesn't reauthorize the benefits. The checks will stop going out for some people immediately after Nov. 30, and more and more people will have their lifeline cut off each week as they exhaust the weeks left on their current "tier" of benefits and find themselves ineligible for the next tier.
The progressive Economic Policy Institute estimates that reauthorizing the benefits for a full year would cost $65 billion and create more than 700,000 jobs.
"For the sake of the economy and millions of struggling families, Congress should continue these programs for a full year," said Owens.
Click HERE to download a PDF of the poll results.