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Sunday, October 23, 2016

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. — Not far from once-booming Atlantic City, here’s what the end of federal unemployment insurance looks like in a tattered community where the jobless rate is still almost twice the national average.

A solitary Republican congressman stands in the afternoon sun, struggling against the odds and the majority in his own party, to rally a handful of supporters seeking the resumption of unemployment benefits that were cut off late last year.

The local workforce development office, a newer building in an otherwise shabby stretch of downtown Pleasantville, swells with job seekers, many from nearby casinos that fueled a boom before the bust when gambling revenue sank.

Long-term-unemployed workers, like waitress Chris Congleton, a grandmother sidelined with a foot injury, desperately look for any available job as they come to terms with the reality that the federal aid they’d come to rely on is probably over. Three months behind on her mortgage, Congleton is hoping to go back to waiting tables, even though her doctor warned against it.

“This is a world of hurt,” said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, who grew up not far from here and often talks to his constituents by phone on his commute from Washington back to the southern New Jersey district. “These heart-wrenching stories that I’m hearing … you can sense just the agony that people are going through.”

But the 10-term congressman’s campaign to renew federal assistance for the long-term unemployed is a lonely one, and unlikely to produce the outcome he is hoping for in Congress.

After repeatedly extending federal benefits, Washington has little political appetite for another round — what would be the 13th since jobs started disappearing at an alarming rate in the middle of 2008.

Before expiring in December, the emergency program had lasted a record five years, an unparalleled allocation of federal aid to combat an economic slump unlike any since the Great Depression. With the abrupt end of the weekly payments, which averaged $289, more than 2 million Americans lost their aid.

Never before has Congress allowed the emergency federal benefits to lapse when long-term jobless rates are as high as they are today — about 2.4 percent of the workforce. Congress has, however, shut off benefits when the overall unemployment rate dropped below 7 percent — as it did in December.

Now, nearly five years after the recession technically ended, this unprecedented outlay of federal aid for the jobless — $260 billion over 66 months, twice as long as the next-longest run — is seeing an equally unprecedented end.

Republicans in particular have grown weary of spending federal dollars on the unemployed, arguing that the aid provides a disincentive to finding work. And as the sluggish economy shows signs of improvement, Democrats have little leverage to compel Congress to act. Each month that passes without a renewal of benefits saps the remaining political momentum.

Though the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a retroactive extension in April, only six GOP lawmakers signed a letter drafted by LoBiondo to urge Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) to bring the issue to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. No vote is scheduled.

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  • Mark Forsyth

    That’s right,cut off unemployment benefits,refuse to fund jobs bills and call the out of work folks lazy.And keep doing it so no focus is put on job killing policies and the jerks who created them.

  • Allan Richardson

    Most of us believe we are being “fair minded” when we say we vote for “the person, not the party.” But the fact is that the “persons” who run for office — any office, from city council to President — on Republican tickets owe so many favors to the party machine itself, and to big money donors, that they are not FREE TO BE the same persons when they get elected, as this and other GOP members of Congress are finding out. That is what has driven one former Republican governor, Charlie Crist of Florida, to switch parties. I remember that, although he tried to moderate conservative policies, he was opposed by extremists in his old party, then chased out of office to be succeeded by a MEDICARE DEFRAUDING CEO of a hospital chain, who only escaped jail by convincing a jury he was too stupid to know what his entire company was doing (great qualification to run a state, right). The only way Charlie could run for office again was to switch parties. He may not be as progressive as some Democratic voters would like, but he is running to represent ALL the people of Florida, and to reverse the crazy policies his successor, now the incumbent, has put into place.

    Vote for nothing but Democrats in November, until the Republican party is once more the “big tent” with room for moderates that it once was.

  • Dominick Vila

    I wonder if the GOP is proud of the fact that when it comes to the minimum wage we beat Sierra Leone…

  • Ama Zohn

    Our trust in liberty rests on the understanding that it will, in the long run, unleash much more potential for good than for evil.