Doing Right by Those Hit Hardest by the Recession

07/22/2010 03:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Washington newspaper recently commissioned a survey that showed that Washington insiders are experiencing the effects of the recession far differently than regular people throughout the country. They found that relatively few Washington insiders have been affected by the recession, while the vast majority of Americans have felt the pain caused by the historic economic downturn.

I've traveled throughout the United States extensively in the past year, and I can tell the insiders that this recession has been absolutely brutal for working families; especially those who have watched their jobs vanish as a result of the recession. These are not the banking executives that made risky bets with other people's money, created synthetic derivatives, or took their companies headlong into the subprime mortgage markets. These aren't the lobbyists enjoying record revenues, or the bankruptcy lawyers who lack the time to take on another client. These are ordinary, hardworking Americans who asked nothing more than a fair wage for an honest day's work.

Because of the severity of the recession, many Americans who lost their jobs in the initial, devastating months of the meltdown have still not been able to find work. I've talked to them across the country, in big cities and small towns. I've heard their stories of sending hundreds of resumes by day, and worrying throughout the night about how to pay the mortgage, the electric bills, or put their kids in clothes that fit.

These families face a problem of math -- there are currently five applicants for every job opening. There are too many people looking, and not enough people hiring. As a result, the Obama Administration worked to extend unemployment benefits in order to help keep these families afloat in the interim.

Six weeks ago, however, those emergency unemployment insurance provisions expired. The Administration and Democrats in the Congress worked to extend the benefits. Even though a majority of Senators supported the extension, Republicans in the Senate blocked action, using parliamentary tactics to obstruct and delay. As a result, 2.5 million Americans who were looking for work were cut off from unemployment assistance. That's 2.5 million Americans already struggling to get by, cut off from modest benefits to help them keep their mortgages paid and food on their table. That's 2.5 million Americans with less money to spend at their local grocery store or gas station to help local economies grow.

Some Republicans claimed that ending these benefits will force these Americans to start looking for work, ignoring the fact that there are five Americans looking for every existing job opening. Still others, while blocking the extension of these benefits, are arguing for a return to the policies of George W. Bush, and advocating extending tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. How they can support tax breaks for the very executives who made millions on the risky derivative trades that caused the financial meltdown, and turn a blind eye to the working people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own is beyond me.

This week, the impasse was broken when Senator Robert Byrd's replacement was finally sworn into the Senate. That is good news for America's displaced workers, but it's shocking to me that it takes a super majority in the Senate to do right by the people hit hardest by this recession -- especially when there is talk of cutting taxes for millionaire bankers, lobbyists and executives.

The good news is that later today, the President is expected to sign an extension of the unemployment benefits, providing a modest level of help to the 2.5 million Americans that lost income because of the GOP's obstruction. I know that for these families, it couldn't come soon enough. But it's a shame that a partisan agenda held up these benefits for our family, friends and neighbors in need.

This post also appears on the U.S. Department of Labor Blog at