01/06/2012 12:01 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

Nearly Lost in the Political Debate: 2.8 Million Unemployed Americans

Lost in the debate about budget cuts and payroll taxes is the dire situation facing 2.8 million American workers, men and women who live in our neighborhoods, who are trying to provide for themselves and their families while struggling to find work. With limits on the amount of time individuals can receive support through state-based unemployment insurance programs, federal unemployment benefits have become a safe harbor of sorts for the long-term unemployed, with the impact of these benefits extending far beyond individual workers' wallets.

Although the modest unemployment insurance is significantly less than what is required to meet the basic household needs, which WOW estimates to be nearly $68,000 for two-parent households, it certainly helps make a dent in regular bills.

And, these dollars get spent. They pay the rent or the mortgage. They cover the costs of food, utilities, and clothing. They put gas in the car or pay for transit fares to go to job interviews, the grocery store, or their children's school events.

What happens when those dollars are spent? Stores stay open. Other workers keep their jobs. Business to business transactions continue to occur because men and women supporting themselves and their families are consumers.

Unemployed workers must spend the meager allowance that comes in through unemployment insurance simply to survive. In economic development terms, the consumer activity of the unemployed creates quite the return on investment. In 2008 it was estimated that the GDP grew $2 for every $1 spent through unemployment insurance. I suspect a lot of investors would welcome that kind of return of their investments.

So, why have we had a drawn-out debate in Congress about extending federal unemployment benefits at a time when job creation is not keeping pace with the number of workers looking for employment and when we certainly cannot afford to see more businesses fail and additional workers lose their jobs?

Without the last-minute congressional deal, 2.8 million Americans would have lost unemployment benefits in the first two months of 2012. There could not be a worse time to do this than now, as we move deeper into the winter months when shelter, warm clothing, heating fuels, and electricity are critical, and as we try to combat illnesses with better nutrition and expensive medication.

Our neighbors who rely on federal unemployment benefits do so as a last option. They have run out of state-supported benefits, which typically expire after 26 weeks, even though the average duration of unemployment is at a record length of 41 weeks. This means our neighbors and family members have been looking for work for six months or more in most cases.

The long-term unemployed (43 percent of the total), 5.7 million men and women who have been without work for 27 weeks or more, have been trying to muster a little bit of hope for finding a job in the new year, but the recent political gamesmanship that was played over their only remaining lifeline only served to create unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety for their families.

The price our country would have paid by eliminating federal unemployment benefits would manifest not just for current working-age adults, not just for businesses in our communities, but also in the lives of our children. Already, we heard the stories of children asking Santa for a new coat, a job for a parent, and money to pay for food, instead asking for toys and games.

The disregard for the men and women who have been struggling to find work and support their families is un-American, and when Congress returns for a full session, we need them to stay focused on the core values we all share.