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Cutting benefits for Christmas

Well, Christmas is almost here, and 43,000 Michigan citizens are getting a very unwelcome present this week. The state is notifying them that their extended unemployment benefits run out in eight days.

Since many of these folks have dependents, this is likely to be a huge blow to something like 100,000 people who are struggling to keep food on the table and the heat and electricity on.

This isn’t the result of a state policy, but a national one. There’s been considerable celebration over the recent federal budget deal that will avoid the threat of another government shutdown over the next couple of years. But that deal did not include any extension of federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

There’s no way they can reconsider this before the New Year, since the U.S. House has gone home. This is going to mean considerable hardship for more than a million people nationwide.

Things are, as usual, disproportionately bad in Michigan, which has not come close to completely recovering from the effects of the downsizing of the auto industry combined with the Great Recession.

There are still well over 400,000 “officially” unemployed people in our state. Of course, under our nutty system, if you get so discouraged you give up and stop looking for a job, you are no longer officially unemployed.

Last month Michigan’s unemployment rate “fell” by .2%, but there were actually fewer people working. The rate fell because the work force itself declined even faster.

The more than 43,000 who are losing benefits haven’t been getting a lot. Their compensation averages less than $300 a week. But when you haven’t worked for a year, that money is essential for many folks to keep going.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate are hoping to shame their Republican colleagues in the House into renewing these benefits next year. Carl Levin, who is beginning his last year in the Senate, called failure to do so “cruel and economically self-defeating.” He noted that there are still three job seekers for every job, and said “removing the safety net that keeps families from falling into despair is unjust.”  

But if there are any compassionate conservatives in Michigan government, they are hiding. In a quote that sounded like she was reading a brochure, a state official said cheerily that while cutting off these folks’ benefits would be a challenge,  “Michigan’s improving economy and new job placement programs  will provide more opportunities for unemployed workers who are making the transition back into the workforce.”

That’s nice, if they don’t starve to death first.

The big news in Lansing this week was that the state is apparently going to have a budget surplus for the next few years. While the governor immediately cautioned against spending money we don’t have yet, the speaker of the house seemed positively giddy at the idea of giving rich folks another tax cut. 

I wonder what would happen if I suggested using some of that money to help these jobless folks hang on. Actually, that’s a lie. Sadly, I know precisely what our legislature would do. Nothing at all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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