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Illinois Agency Sticks Up For The Long-Term Unemployed

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WASHINGTON -- What's happened since Congress killed long-term unemployment insurance in December proves the jobless aren't lazy, according to one state workforce agency.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security announced this week that 86 percent of the state's long-term unemployed were still without work at the end of January, according to a study by the agency.

“This seriously undermines the perception that unemployment insurance discourages workers from finding employment,” Jay Rowell, the Illinois agency's director, said in a press release. “You should look at this analysis as confirmation that re-authorizing emergency unemployment is a cost-effective way to help families stay in their homes and put food on their tables. But you cannot look at this and say that people don’t want to work.”

Congress allowed emergency unemployment benefits to end for 1.3 million Americans at the end of the year. Federal benefits should kick in when state benefits expire, and with 70,000 people running out of state benefits each week since then, more than 2 million have lost out on payments altogether. In Illinois, 74,000 residents stopped receiving benefits at the end of 2013, and 64,000 of those individuals were still jobless at the end of January, according to its workforce development agency.

Republicans opposed to renewing the benefits have said paying unemployed people keeps them from taking available jobs, but Rowell insists the data demonstrates the real reason for long-term joblessness is that there aren't enough jobs. Department spokesman Greg Rivara lamented that Rowell's words didn't get more attention.

"Frankly, it may have been a bad headline on my part," Rivara said Thursday, adding that he remains convinced by the data. "If the notion is, you're receiving money, so you're not going to go look for work -- well, the next month you're not receiving any money. You would think, even if there was some validity to that notion, you wouldn't have 86 percent still without wages."

Nationally, the number of Americans out of work longer than six months hasn't changed much, holding at 3.7 million in March compared with 3.8 million in December. Some experts had expected the loss of benefits to lead to a decline in the number of unemployed workers as people gave up searching for jobs altogether. (To count as unemployed, someone has to have sought jobs in the past four weeks.)

Without the benefits, the thinking went, pessimistic unemployed people would either scramble for whatever jobs they could find or give up their search, shrinking the ranks of the long-term jobless. But that apparently hasn't happened.

The Senate passed a bill to reauthorize the benefits on April 7, but it appears unlikely that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will bring it up for a vote in that chamber any time soon. Boehner said in March that it would be difficult for state unemployment agencies to implement the legislation.

Rivara said that he doesn't think it would be "too big of a lift to reinstate all those benefits," adding that the real issue is that "Congress picked a spot on the calendar, arbitrarily, to end the program, rather than choosing to end a program based on economic data."

"This recovery has been different than every recovery in the past. That certainly gets lost when you're in the D.C. bubble," he said.

The Illinois agency is the only one in the country that requires employers to submit monthly wage reports, in order to combat fraud, putting it in a "unique position" to produce this report, Rivara said.

Though Rivara expressed confidence in the study's findings, he cautioned that "you never making sweeping declarations based on one month of data." He said that the Illinois Department of Employment Security plans to release a new report soon using wage data from February.

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