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Unemployed? Happy Holidays: Now You're On Your Own

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Here's a sobering thought for our holiday season: One million workers will become ineligible for unemployment benefits in January 2010 unless Congress reauthorizes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)'s unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance programs by the end of this month.

What a way to ring in the New Year: a vital lifeline that helped these jobless women and men keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, and get medical insurance coverage will evaporate. By March the number of affected Americans could swell to more than 3.2 million workers if Congress doesn't act.

One group of jobless workers is especially vulnerable: single mothers. The unemployment data released earlier this month show that 11.4 percent of women who head families are unemployed, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 10 percent. Since the recession began in December 2007, unemployment among women who head families has consistently been higher than the unemployment rate for men and women generally.

More than one of every three female-headed families with children was living in poverty last year (the most recent year for which data are available). It is the highest number in a decade. A similar number struggled to get enough to eat. With this year's sharp rise in unemployment, even more families are at risk of poverty and hunger.

Many families headed by single mothers already scrape by just to make ends meet - even in good times. In 2008, before the dramatic rise in unemployment, the median income for female-headed families was just under $26,000 - less than a third of the income of married-couple families.

When single mothers lose their jobs, they have little to fall back on: no second earner, few if any assets, nowhere to turn. They are women like Kathy Henry of Chicago. The New York Times reported recently that the 39-year-old former administrative assistant has received a $1,200 monthly unemployment check since being laid off in August 2008. That assistance has just barely kept her two children and herself afloat as she searches for work. She says she has applied for more than 500 jobs without any luck.

The extended jobless and COBRA health insurance benefits provided by ARRA are especially critical for the long-term unemployed. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that long-term unemployment is at its highest level since records have been kept: about forty percent of jobless women and men have been unemployed for more than six months. And, while the pace of job loss fortunately slowed in November, even if this slower pace continues it will take time - and additional measures - to restore the millions of jobs lost in this recession.

These benefits not only help individuals, they have a multiplier effect on the larger economy. Cash in hand (or unspent on astronomical COBRA premiums) buys food, gas, clothing and, in turn, helps keep businesses afloat. So, individual benefits should be viewed as one more arrow in the quiver to help this economy recover. Congress must act quickly to extend this lifeline to ensure that families can continue to receive the help they need and from which their communities and the nation can benefit.

Yes, Congress is busy with heath care reform, and that work, too, must continue. But legislators mustn't drop the ball on the unemployment issue: leaving single mothers and hundreds of thousands of other jobless workers out in the cold this January is not the path toward economic recovery.

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