THE BLOG

Remembering the Unemployment Line

11/30/2010 10:17 am 10:17:52 | Updated May 25, 2011

My first job out of college was working in my hometown unemployment office. It was 1974 and the country was heading into a major recession. The nation's unemployment rate climbed from 6 percent to 9 percent in my first eight months on the job.

In those days, if you were unemployed, you came into the office every two weeks and stood in a long line. When I first arrived, there were three lines a day with about 75 claimants in each line. Soon, the number of people in each line doubled and the number of lines tripled.

I stood at the head of one line asking people the questions I had been trained to ask. Are you able and available for work? Have you refused an offer of work? Have you filed applications with at least three prospective employers? Only then would I hand over a benefit payment cut from an old check-writing machine.

With each passing day, the room of unemployed workers grew larger and would regularly flow out to the street. I began seeing people I knew more and more frequently -- neighbors, friends of my parents, parents of my friends -- and they were all embarrassed to see me. Collecting unemployment benefits had a stigma, even though the program had been around since the New Deal.

I remember most heartbreakingly my godfather Frank. He had been laid off by the town's largest manufacturing plant and was quick to tell me he would be back to work soon. But his desperation became more palpable as the months wore on and I came to dread the hurt in his eyes every two weeks.

Congress extended benefits well beyond the standard six months most states provide and Frank eventually found another job -- but I didn't see him much after that and when I did, I think I just reminded him of a time he preferred to forget.

We don't make the unemployed stand in long lines anymore, but today's economy is treating U.S. workers far worse than the 1970's recession or, in fact, any recession since World War II. The national unemployment rate has been over 9 percent for 18 consecutive months. Over 14 million Americans are looking for work -- almost half of them have been jobless for more than six months, and nearly a quarter more than a year.

As in every recession over the last 50 years, Congress began authorizing additional federal unemployment benefits when the jobless rate started to increase. That was in June 2008 when the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent. The idea has always been that when there are less jobs to be had, people need more weeks to find a new one. As the recession deepened, Congress has acted several more times to keep the additional benefits available.

Today, the nation's unemployment rate is 9.6 percent and there is a very real chance that Congress will let the program of federal unemployment benefits die. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program expires on Nov. 30. If Congress does not act, 2 million Americans will lose benefits between Thanksgiving and Christmas and that number will grow to 4 million over the rest of the winter.

We have just come through an election season in which there was a lot of talk about jobs. There is no question that we need to do more to spur job creation. But as policymakers search for the cure to the country's ailing economy, how can we consider cutting off critical financial support to the working families who have been its victims?

Today's unemployed file their unemployment claims in anonymity by telephone or through the Internet. They worry in isolation about paying their bills, about telling their kids the college savings are gone, about losing their homes. Maybe we would treat them better if they still stood in lines. If they did, those 14 million workers would make a line from Bangor, Maine to Los Angeles and back.

This holiday season I pray that my country does not forget 14 million Americans and their families who -- like my godfather Frank -- only want a job so that this nightmare can end.

This post originally appeared in The Day.