Six hundred Wyomingites and 1.3 million other Americans will lose their unemployment insurance benefits on Saturday.
The loss comes after Congress didn't renew the Emergency Unemployed Compensation program put into place in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown.
Advocates for renewing the measure were hoping a provision to renew the program could slide into the Ryan-Murray budget that’s awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature. But a push for extending the subsidy might have prevented the compromise that helped usher the budget bill through both chambers — a feat unseen in Washington since 2009. Congress has authorized spending since then without voting on a new budget.
President George W. Bush and the 111th Congress enacted the measure shortly after the Great Recession took hold. Proponents of an extension say it’s necessary because the nation still has 1.5 million fewer jobs than it did in 2008, when the program went into effect, according to a report from U.S. House Democrats in the Ways and Means Committee.
The insurance gave extra financial help to people who had been out of work for between 26 and 40 weeks. Congress has reduced the number of weeks for which an eligible person could receive benefits in the past two years. At one time the benchmark was 99 weeks.
Benefit recipients who qualified for the program didn’t quit and weren’t terminated by their prior employer. They were either laid off or had another circumstance force them to lose their job. They had to actively be looking for a job in order to receive the payments.
The maximum a person could receive was $471 per week. The minimum was $35, and the average was $300, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. The amounts depended on wages previously earned.
This year wasn’t a good year for Americans dependent upon government programs. The budget cuts known as sequestration hit domestic programs and cost the country 750,000 fewer new jobs from being created or retained, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
A provision giving a larger monthly amount of food stamps to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries also ended.
“People forget about these little things,” said Mike Evangelist, policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, a left-leaning think tank in Manhattan. “Congress has been chipping away. Our economy won’t collapse, but it’s going to hurt individuals.”
The report from the Ways and Means panel's Democrats said the benefits remain a financial lifeline for Americans searching for work
“Eliminating these benefits will not only cause needless harm to many families, but also put yet another hurdle in front of the nation’s economic growth,” according to the report. “… The primary impact of extended benefits is to keep people looking for work.”
Even though recipients have to be actively looking for jobs, members of Wyoming's all-Republican congressional delegation think differently than Democrats.
The labor participation rate is at a 35-year low, said Laura Mengelkamp, spokeswoman for Sen. John Barrasso.
“Americans have given up looking for work,” she said.
Sen. Mike Enzi worries that unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for work.
Unemployment isn’t fixed by only providing benefits, Enzi spokesman Dan Head said.
Congress should focus more on creating an economic climate that fosters job creation through tax reform, repealing Obamacare and removing government red tape, he said.
“The program was designed to provide short-term assistance, not a permanent check from the government,” Head said.
More cuts will come in 2014 to people who have been unemployed for less than 26 weeks. In June, 3,700 more Wyomingites and an additional 1.9 million Americans will lose unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act.