11/23/2010 12:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maintaining Unemployment Benefits Helps Families and Economy

As we head into Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday shopping season, nearly 2 million unemployed Americans have to worry that their unemployment benefits will stop at the end of the month, with the federal unemployment insurance program set to expire on November 30.

It's not just the 2 million jobless Americans that will lose their unemployment benefits in December who will suffer if those benefits are cut off.

The grocery stores, retailers and small businesses where the benefits get spent will also take a hit, at a time when many of these stores are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. The timing couldn't be worse. There just aren't enough jobs right now. In fact, there are five unemployed Americans for every job opening in the country.

In every major recession since the 1950's, Congress has enacted a temporary program providing additional weeks of federally-funded unemployment insurance benefits after state-provided unemployment insurance is exhausted. In the past, Congress has always continued providing those federal unemployment benefits until the economy was strong enough to drive down the unemployment rate.

The unemployment rate now stands at 9.6 percent. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that failing to maintain benefits would result in more than one million additional jobs lost over the next year. With 14.8 million Americans unemployed, we simply cannot afford that.

What's more, Congress has never ended federal unemployment benefits with the unemployment rate above 7.4 percent.

Congress's efforts this fall to pass legislation to maintain unemployment benefits are not encouraging. While Senators Casey and Reed are pushing for a one-year renewal of benefits -- recognizing that it will take time for the economy to pick up -- the prospects for preserving those benefits for even three months dimmed last week when, due to a lack of Republican support, the House failed to pass a bill that would have continued the program though February.

Time and time again, the overwhelming majority of Republicans have voted against providing unemployment benefits to workers who need support as they try to find their next job. The election didn't seem to change anything on that front, with only 21 of 179 House Republicans voting last week to continue unemployment benefits.

Republicans often cite the deficit as the reason to end the unemployment benefits program. But the president of the Concord Coalition, an organization whose very mission is to eliminate the deficit, says, "As a deficit hawk, I wouldn't worry about extending unemployment benefits."

And most economists, including former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, have said that cutting a short-term program that helps to strengthen a sluggish economy isn't the right place to look for budget savings.

As we gather for Thanksgiving, we can be thankful that our economy is doing better than it was a year ago. However, for far too many American families, jobs are still hard to come by.

The truth is that we can support both the families and businesses that depend on their purchasing power by maintaining unemployment benefits for those Americans still reeling from the Great Recession. When Congress returns after Thanksgiving, this must be a priority.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is the chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, which just released a report on the impact of unemployment benefits on the economy.