02/02/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Conference Committee Must Extend Emergency Unemployment Benefits

This week on Capitol Hill, a conference committee convened its second meeting to resolve the differences between the House and Senate in extending unemployment benefits beyond the end of the month. The conference committee for H.R. 3630 is tasked with coming to an agreement on the addressing the extension of the payroll tax holiday, unemployment compensation benefits, restoration of Medicare payments to physicians, and other matters. I believe it is essential to fully consider the ongoing impacts of the crisis in unemployment and long-term unemployment.

Our country is in the midst of a jobs crisis. Without immediate action, our economy will continue to stagnate. Any agreement will affect not only on the millions of affected individuals and families who are living life on the edge, but will no doubt impact our nation's struggling economy.

While we see some slow improvements in the jobs numbers, unemployment rates continue to be unacceptably high, and the rates of long-term unemployment as well a the length of time that the unemployed are out of work are both at record highs. Last year, 75 percent of the unemployed were receiving checks. The figure is now 48 percent -- a shift that points to a growing crisis of long-term unemployment. Nearly one third of America's 14 million unemployed have had no job for a year or more.

We must immediately extend the expiring emergency unemployment benefits to the maximum authorized levels, and we should also immediately add an additional 14 weeks of tier-I unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who have completely exhausted their benefits while struggling to find work. My bill with Congressman Bobby Scott, H.R. 589, does just that. While the bill languishes in committee, it is my hope that this conference committee will consider this legislation for inclusion in any final legislative agreement.

Far too many Americans have exhausted all of their unemployment benefits and are still unable to find work. Abandoning these job seekers will only further depress the economy as the long-term unemployed fall into poverty and begin to be eligible for other needs-based federal benefits. These individuals would then become part of the "99ers," the nickname for the jobless population that has exhausted all eligibility for both regular and extended benefits. The number of 99ers already stands at around 2 million.

Some 100 million people -- that is 1 in 3 Americans -- live in poverty or the zone just above poverty. It is only by providing these millions of struggling American families with adequate and immediate relief and a genuine pathway out of poverty that we can put America back on track to prosperity and economic growth for all.

I know that creating jobs is the best way to get our economy back on track. Until Republican leaders in the House can pass President Obama's American Jobs Act, or put forth any kind of reasonable plan for job creation, we must ensure that the safety net is strong.

Americans across the country are demanding good jobs now. People want to be able to get back to work to earn a fair living. It is incumbent upon this conference committee to ensure that the bridge is strong enough to deliver us all -- even our most vulnerable -- over these troubled waters. Then, it is up to congressional leaders to work that everyone has the freedom to participate in this economy, has the right to a fair wage, and has hope for tomorrow. We must take bold action now.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee co-founded the Congressional Out-of-Poverty Caucus (COPC) after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The caucus seeks to raise awareness about the need to fight poverty, hunger, and homelessness in America and is working on legislation, H.R. 3300, that will promote poverty eradication.