Unemployment is a lifeline for hardworking people
By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
Unemployment is not charity. It is a critical part of the safety net to help families who, through no fault of their own, find themselves without a job.
Alabama, like the rest of the country, is going through a tough time with unemployment. December’s unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, and it has nearly doubled in less than three years. While we are doing better than most other states, especially when compared to our neighbors, the unemployment numbers are not good, and most likely will get worse.
University of Alabama researcher Sam Addy predicts that the state’s unemployment will rise until it peaks at 8.0 percent to 8.4 percent in the last half of this year. That means our state will have gone from record employment to the worst unemployment since the early 1980’s in a very short span. While it won’t compare to the 14 percent unemployment we saw 25 years ago, it is still a stark reminder of how many families are hurting.
What is difficult about downturns like this is that when a breadwinner loses a job, it is because of the economy, not job performance. While there has not been any polling published on this particular subject, it is safe to say Alabamians default to thinking when someone loses a job, it must be for fault or performance.
That thinking is reflected in our unemployment program. Alabama has one of the most restrictive unemployment programs in the country, with benefits ranging from $55 to $255 per week. There are more disqualifications in our unemployment program than most states, and this has not been seen as a problem when there were an abundance of jobs. Now that is not the case.
In the recent stimulus package passed by Congress, Alabama unemployment benefits are scheduled to go up by $25 a week, beginning next month. The stimulus package provided money for all states to raise their benefits through the end of the year, and the governor signed an agreement with the federal government to make the increase available here.
That extra money will help an estimated 70,000 Alabamians currently drawing unemployment benefits emergency assistance. The increase is automatic and will not require any additional paperwork. The increase will boost the maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Alabama from $255 to $280.
However, there is some controversy over other aspects of the federal unemployment assistance. The governor recently said he will reject $66 million in additional help that would make eligible tens of thousands more families to receive unemployment. The governor says he will refuse this money because he believes after the federal assistance ends in four years, Alabama will have to continue to fund the expansion of unemployment to the tune of $17 million a year.
So what is the federal government asking Alabama to do? Alabama would have to adjust some of its qualification guidelines and do two of the following things: add $15-per-week for those unemployed with dependent children; include part-time workers; include those who stop working because of a compelling family reason like domestic violence; or include those who enroll in approved job training programs.
It is important to remember unemployment is not a paid vacation. While people receive benefits they have to be looking for a job. And let’s face it; even with the additional money, the benefits will not sustain a family long. It is meant to be a stopgap, to help hardworking people who are being hit by forces beyond their control. Isn’t it right that we help these folks? Economists say that unemployment assistance is one of the most effective stimulus strategies because people immediately spend it. Are we really in a position to turn down $66 million that will help our economy now, rather than worry what may or may not happen in four years?
The Legislative Fiscal Office is now reviewing the figures and the language of the stimulus bill to see how much this could cost after the federal funds run out, and whether the changes in our system would have to be permanent. Then we’ll have to take a long hard look at whether we could deny thousands of families this assistance-assistance they need through no fault of their own.