Stephen Kent

Congress reconvened this month, still basking in praise for merely emerging from political deadlock and doing its job by passing a budget for the first time in almost four years. Some 1.3 million Americans, however, are less impressed.

These are the long-term unemployed who found themselves out of luck in the closing days of last year and now are without any assistance.

Under an emergency program created in 2008, federal benefits are provided for those who have exhausted their state unemployment benefits. In many states, unemployment benefits run out after 26 weeks.

Long-term unemployment is at its highest since World War II. More than half of all Americans are collecting unemployment or are married to someone who has collected it.

The bipartisan budget compromise came after Congress’ approval ratings sank to historic lows because of seemingly never-ending brinkmanship over spending and taxes. However, the budget did not provide an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

A vote on a bill extending federal unemployment insurance benefits for three months is expected this month. The temporary bill would allow time to consider an extension for all of 2014.

Extending the emergency unemployment benefit for one year, which provides an average benefit of $1,166 a month, would cost $25 billion.

“Let there be no mistake that the people who receive this benefit are people who have worked every day. They want and need the dignity of work to allow them to provide for themselves and their families,” Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, told a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing Dec. 5.

“Unemployment is not the life these individuals seek, nor is it the one they want. They want to continue moving toward the American dream and it is incumbent on all of us to do everything that we can to ensure that a robust economy and good-paying jobs are the long-term solutions,” he said.

Some in Congress say they will vote for an extension only if it is matched by spending cuts elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with good fiscal planning. After all, a budget is but a document that sets the fiscal cost of priorities.

Make the setting of national priorities concrete. Politicians are fond of photo ops and visuals. Roll out an F-35 fighter jet, with an estimated cost of $122 million per plane, and assemble a sufficient number of unemployment recipients until the sum of their annual unemployment benefits match the $122 million cost of the plane. Then let each side make its case for the money and keep going until the needed sum is reached.

Put unemployment compensation in the Department of Homeland Security. What deals with security more than the ability to provide food and shelter for a family?

The Pentagon has no problem making its case for money, with spending in 2014 to be at least $520 billion. Defense contractors have their phone calls answered, advocates for those on the margin less so.

“Our Catholic tradition teaches us that society, acting through government, has a special obligation to consider first the needs of the poor and vulnerable,” Father Snyder told Congress.

A politically dysfunctional Congress was praised for doing a basic requirement. Putting the poor and vulnerable first, before pork barrel, would truly be praiseworthy.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: