There's a menu of viable economic policy initiatives out there that would assist unemployed people and cash-strapped states. Will Congress fund any of them?
The topic dominated the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns. Almost 70 percent of exit poll respondents in Illinois ranked it as the top issue currently facing the country. Every pol returning this month to either Springfield or Washington must answer one simple question: how can we create more jobs?
To be sure, the local economy is improving, if slowly. Illinois' unemployment rate dropped again in September from 10.1 to 9.9 percent. It was the ninth consecutive month in which the state jobless rate has fallen or remained constant and the first time Illinois has dipped below 10 percent since April 2009. The gubernatorial election results also bode well for Illinois' economic prospects in the near-term. Over the last year, the private sector has created 1.1 million jobs nationally, but the net increase in employment has only been 874,000 jobs. Why? State and local governments facing tight budgets have laid off public employees, which has caused a severe drag on growth. A Bill Brady administration, by advocating deep cuts in state spending, could have amplified this problem.
Still, considerably more work needs to be done. Without significant action by Congress and the Federal Reserve, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the national unemployment rate will hover around 9 percent through 2011. The reason is simple: there aren't enough jobs to go around. The National Employment Law Project recently crunched (PDF) job opening numbers from August 2010, the latest month for which relevant data is available. While roughly 15 million people are looking for work, there were only 3.2 million job openings.
"Stimulus" may be a dirty word in Washington, but voters in Illinois think it's just what the doctor ordered. According to CNN's exit polls from Tuesday, a plurality of Illinois voters surveyed (41 percent) said that the highest priority for the next Congress should be "spending to create jobs." A plurality (36 percent) also said that President Obama's economic recovery package "helped the economy." Economic evidence supports those opinions. Check out this graph created by the financial bloggers at Calculated Risk tracking weekly unemployment insurance claims. As you can see, following the passage of the Recovery Act, claims dropped considerably, only to even out when most of that money had already been distributed:
One immediate action Congress could take would be to extend funding for two emergency unemployment benefit programs, the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program and the state-based Extended Benefits (EB) program. On November 30, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country, including roughly 127,767 in Illinois, will exhaust their EUC or EB insurance. That's certainly bad for the folks who rely on unemployment checks for their livelihood. The most benefits anyone in Illinois could receive under normal circumstances is 26 weeks, even though nationally, over 40 percent of the unemployed have been looking for a job for more than six months.
It also spells trouble for the economy more broadly. Economists approve of this spending because it's highly stimulative; Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierolz at the Economic Policy Institute estimate that the expansion of unemployment insurance system since 2007 has added approximately 1.15 million full-time jobs. It also kept roughly 3.3 million people out of poverty, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. When people have money to spend, products get purchased.
The New York Times' editorial board offered similar advice to lawmakers on Sunday:
Deficits matter, but not more than a recovery (benefits are a powerful stimulus) or the economic survival of millions of Americans. Short-term extensions breed uncertainty and anxiety, which are also bad for the economy. The best thing this lame duck Congress can do is extend the benefits for 12 months, with the expectation that things will be better by the end of next year.
On top of its neglect of insurance, the U.S. Senate has also failed to re-up its support for the TANF Emergency Fund, a stimulus program that provided cash for the state's highly successful Put Illinois To Work (PITW) program. Research shows that between April and September, over 27,000 Illinoisans have worked for 4,280 employers earning $107 million in wages in $10-per-hour job as a direct result of PITW. Gov. Pat Quinn spent $75 million in state money to keep it afloat for two months this fall, but that grant expires at the end of the November, as well. A bipartisan group of governors has asked Congress to back the fund once more, but Senate Republicans don't seem interested in the slightest. That mean 27,000 more poor Illinoisans could head back to Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) offices this holiday season.
IDES is dealing with its own funding problems. Illinois only has $108 million left in its unemployment benefit fund, which will last a few more weeks. After that, the state will need to engage in more borrowing to keep the pool solvent. (Last year, the state received a $2 billion credit line from Washington to pay out unemployment benefits to laid-off workers.)
Once again, Congress could step in and help cash-strapped states pay off these debts. As we've written before, lawmakers on Capitol Hill could extend indefinitely its moratorium on state interest payments. IDES spokesperson Greg Rivara points out that Congress could also forgive the state's loan balance entirely.
In short, there's a menu of viable economic options out there that would assist unemployed people. Senate Republicans like Senator-elect Mark Kirk now have a choice: should we help them or ignore them?