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Rep. Sandy Levin Headshot

Mr. Speaker, Don't Turn Your Back on the Jobless

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Richard of Springfield, Oregon, told me of how he lost his job the same day as his wife.

Danielle of Lexington, Kentucky, said she has cashed out her 401(k) to get by after getting laid off.

Aaron of Escondido, California, wrote that he has a single $100 bill left to his name, with two children -- ages 4 and 10 -- to care for. "The specter of them being homeless rips at my insides on a nightly basis," he said.

As heart-breaking as these stories are, they are all too common. Since the emergency unemployment insurance program was allowed to expire at the end of December, more than 2.5 million Americans have been cut off from unemployment benefits.

Last week, with Congress set to reconvene after a two-week recess, dozens of stories came flooding into my office from around the country, adding to the hundreds of people who have told me of their ordeals in letters and emails during the past four months.

"I am a 55-year-old Republican," Mitch of Henderson, Nevada, who lost his job a year ago, wrote last week. "It is the first time I've ever been out of work and on unemployment insurance or any government help."

Mitch told of how he has sold many of his belongings since he was cut off from unemployment benefits in December. "For the first time I need some help. Please don't turn your back on me," he wrote.

Yet the only back that still remains turned on Mitch, Richard, Danielle and Aaron -- and so many other Americans -- is that of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who has refused to allow a vote on a bipartisan five-month extension of unemployment benefits that passed the Senate in April and is fully paid for.

Despite significant public support for continuing long-term unemployment benefits -- with polls showing Americans by a two-to-one margin favor extended benefits -- Speaker Boehner continues to give the same excuses for inaction.

Just yesterday he repeated that he won't take up a vote on unemployment insurance until it includes a jobs provision. But without action to renew unemployment benefits, our economy is on track to lose 200,000 jobs this year.

Here's what Speaker Boehner doesn't say: The economic downturn that began six years ago pushed long-term unemployment to a record level that has barely budged during the recovery. More than 35 percent of people out of work have been job hunting for longer than six months. Rarely before has it climbed above 20 percent. Never before has an emergency unemployment benefit program been discontinued with long-term unemployment close to where it remains today.

Emergency unemployment insurance is not meant to last forever -- and no one is suggesting it should. But millions of Americans are still struggling under the weight of the economic crisis that hit in 2008, and they need assistance while they look for work. Assistance that helps pay for gas to get to interviews, and internet access and phone service to contact potential employers. Assistance that they can't get unless they're actively looking for work -- a requirement that helps keep people in the labor market.

"My two boys and I were not living this high life while receiving unemployment," Kristen from San Diego wrote last week. "It was paying the bills and putting food on the table."

Kristen says that she has applied to 260 jobs since being laid off last May after 20 years with the same employer.

She's not looking for a hand-out. She wrote: "All I want to do is work and provide for my children."