WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidates have leaped to the defense of the Roman Catholic Church in its birth-control battle against President Barack Obama's administration. But while they may agree with the church on contraception and abortion, they're way out of sync on unemployment insurance.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official church policy organization, is urging Congress to reauthorize extended unemployment insurance for people out of work six months or longer. Congress must renew the federal benefits or a million people will stop receiving checks in March, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
"The most recent drop in unemployment and growth in jobs was welcome news," wrote Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the conference's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a letter last week to Congress. "However, this recent report highlighted that 23.8 million Americans are still unable to find full-time employment. The median length of joblessness is still 10 months, and economists estimate that there are over four job seekers for every opening. The economy is still leaving too many people without work."
The church is much more sympathetic to the long-term jobless than are the Republicans running for president, who have said they'd dismantle or privatize the unemployment insurance system, which has provided up to 99 weeks of combined state and federal benefits. Despite their agreement on reproductive issues, unemployment insurance is one of several safety net programs that the Catholic Church supports and the Republican presidential contenders don't.
"Never again should we pay somebody 99 weeks for doing nothing," Newt Gingrich said over the weekend. "Think about the total waste of human capability when you teach people to sit at home for 99 weeks. It's fundamentally wrong and a violation of the Declaration of Independence commitment that we have the right to pursue happiness."
Gingrich said he'd require unemployment claimants to enroll in job training courses in order to receive benefits. Republicans in Congress want to deny benefits to workers who don't have high school diplomas and allow states to require drug testing as a condition for receiving benefits.
In his letter, Bishop Blaire suggested the church opposes new conditions on unemployment insurance.
"I would also caution against changing the unemployment insurance system in ways that could harm vulnerable workers, or make it more difficult for people to re-enter the workforce," Blaire wrote. "Any changes must protect the lives and dignity of beneficiaries."
Congress has waited until the last minute to reauthorize federal unemployment insurance several times over the past two years. Each time, the Bishops have sent a letter urging the benefits to be kept in place, citing a 1981 encyclical by Pope John Paul II.
It's not clear how the latest unemployment standoff will end. On Monday, Republicans offered to decouple a 2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut from unemployment insurance and other domestic spending programs expiring at the end of the month.
Blaire also said in his letter the Bishops oppose a Republican proposal to deny child tax credits to undocumented immigrants.
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