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Op-Ed: Lengthy-term unemployment is rising quickly – that is how we cease it

People walk past a store that goes out of business on 125th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of New York on August 7, 2020.

Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Our nation's employment has taken a nosedive since the pandemic. The number of long-term unemployed American workers rose faster in October this year than in any other registered month.

The number of Americans who said they had been unsuccessfully looking for work for at least twenty-seven weeks has quadrupled from nearly 1 million in April to more than 3.9 million now. That's more than six times the population of Maryland's largest city, Baltimore.

The facts are clear. We must act now to provide emergency relief to American workers affected by long-term unemployment. But we can't stop there. It is also time to find practical solutions to eradicate long-term unemployment altogether. If you ignore this problem, you can cause permanent damage to our workforce and our economy.

Helping these Americans get through the pandemic must be our first priority. CARES expanded unemployment benefits, increased the weekly benefit by $ 600, and added an additional thirteen weeks of benefit.

However, the $ 600 increase expired in late July and the other measures will expire in late December. The HEROES bill passed by the House of Representatives would extend all of these programs, but Senate Republicans have been refusing to allow a single vote on the measure for months. It is time for Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to return to the negotiating table and vote on emergency aid: 3.9 million long-term unemployed are counting on us to act.

However, the passage of the HEROES bill is only the first step in addressing the wider consequences of long-term unemployment. Those who have been unemployed for six months or more often find it difficult to find work because employers are reluctant to recruit applicants with large gaps on their CVs.

Gallup polls found that 19% of workers who were unemployed for over a year had depression compared to 5.6% of workers who were full-time. The longer someone is unemployed, the lower their wages when they find a job – a wage cut that can last for up to twenty years. Long-term unemployment isn't just a symptom of the pandemic – it's a chronic problem that is keeping Americans from work and holding back economic growth.

We don't have to accept long-term unemployment. Last year, I and my colleague Senator Ron Wyden introduced the Elimination of Long-Term Unemployment Act. This bill would address this problem directly by creating well-paid, year-long jobs for the long-term unemployed. Local staff development boards and community organizations would implement the employment program and use federal dollars to help employers create new opportunities and get people back to work.

The legislation would also remove barriers that keep people away from the workforce – such as transportation, childcare and substance abuse – and promote skills for permanent employment. The legislation also provides additional support for communities with persistently high unemployment to start new businesses and create jobs.

This sensible legislation would help men and women get locked out of their jobs for too long in order to find a way to fully re-enter the workforce. And we can fund it by overhauling the international tax changes in the 2017 Trump Plan, creating gusts of wind for large companies, and creating new incentives to send jobs overseas.

Introducing a strong minimum tax on overseas profits would stop tax haven abuse and remove offshoring incentives, while the proceeds would fully fund my plan to tackle long-term unemployment by creating jobs here domestically

This must be a priority for the reunification of Congress. The good news is that experts on both sides of the aisle agree on this approach. In 2017, President Trump's top economic advisor Kevin Hassett spoke out in favor of creating federal jobs for the long-term unemployed. And after putting my legislation in place, I was proud to have the approval of Jared Bernstein, recently appointed to the Council of Economic Advisers by President-elect Joe Biden. Republicans and Democrats should be able to find consensus on the need for this proposal and I will urge my colleagues to take it up immediately.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized: "No country, however rich it may be, can afford to waste its human resources. Demoralization from enormous unemployment is our greatest extravaganza." Roosevelt's New Deal brought jobs and hope. Like the FDR, we must now commit to helping fighting men and women get back on their feet and get into the world of work.

The statistics are depressing, but what's even more is the thought of not tapping into the human capital and full potential of American workers and their families. Together we can build a dynamic economy where jobs are available to all who are willing to work, not a dynastic economy where wealthy people make money while others are unemployed.

Chris Van Hollen is a US Senator from Maryland and a member of the Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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