WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been quietly lobbying Congress to keep extended unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless. It's common for faith groups to lobby Congress on economic issues. Catholics, however, are better known politically for their strong opposition to abortion.
On Monday, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire sent a letter to members of the House of Representatives urging them to focus on the economic security of workers at year's end.
"When the economy fails to generate sufficient jobs, there is a moral obligation to help protect the life and dignity of unemployed workers and their families," Blaire wrote. "Therefore, I strongly urge you and your colleagues to find effective ways to assure continuing Unemployment Insurance and Emergency Unemployment Compensation to protect jobless workers and their families."
Democrats and Republicans are battling over legislation that would reauthorize federal unemployment insurance for people who exhaust six months of state benefits. Since 2008 the federal government has provided extra weeks of benefits, eventually totaling 73 in some states. Democrats have said they want to keep the extra weeks, while Republicans have pushed a plan to cut extended compensation down to 33 weeks. Both sides say want a reauthorization; without an agreement of some kind, as many as 1.8 million workers will be left hanging in January.
Blaire's letter doesn't specifically endorse either approach, though it does note that the average jobless spell duration topped 10 months in November.
Rev. Paul Sherry, director of the Washington office of a religious labor advocacy nonprofit known as Interfaith Worker Justice, said his group opposed the Republican approach, which in addition to shortening benefits would allow states to drug test the jobless.
Interfaith Worker Justice is the lead member of Faith Advocates for Jobs, a coalition of groups devoted to supporting unemployed workers. Later this week that group is sending a letter to Congress urging speedy reauthorization of benefits.
"On this issue of extending unemployment insurance to people who are hurting through no fault of their own, the moral choices couldn't be clearer," the letter says. "As people of faith and conscience, we urge Congress to put partisan advantage aside and do the right thing for the jobless, their families and our communities. Now, not tomorrow."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in addition to its letter-writing, has lobbied individual members of Congress on the unemployment issues, but did not join Interfaith Worker Justice and labor unions that protested in and around the Capitol building last week.
Rev. Blaire's letter to Congress cites a 1981 encyclical by Pope John Paull II: "The obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make suitable grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of ... the right to life and subsistence."