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Fayetteville Observer - Safety Net Cuts a Tar Heel Travesty

March 23, 2014
Op-Ed & Article
Fayetteville Observer - Safety Net Cuts a Tar Heel Travesty

I recently joined a dozen unemployed North Carolinians at Wake Technical Community College to discuss the state of our economic recovery. One of the participants told me that after he was laid off and his unemployment benefits ran out, he lost his house and his car. He now has to count each slice of bread to make his loaf last until he can afford to buy another. Sadly, in the great state of North Carolina, in the most prosperous nation on earth, his story is not an isolated one.

Republicans often claim that unemployment benefits encourage people to postpone the search for work. The reality is that the extended-benefits program keeps people plugged in to the job-search system. In recent months, North Carolina's unemployment rate has fallen, not because most unemployed individuals have found jobs, but because so many stopped seeking work once their benefits ran out. (Only individuals looking for work are counted as "unemployed.")

There are 60,000 fewer participants in our labor force today than there were at the end of 2012, and last October our state's labor force participation rate dropped to a 37-year low. A full labor market recovery isn't coming quickly - a January report saw it expand by only 6,000 people. Ignoring these striking figures, Republicans in Raleigh claim that the drop in the unemployment rate represents a "Carolina Comeback." They are precisely wrong - this is a Carolina Catastrophe.

The majority of the group I met at Wake Tech, where counselors do remarkable work helping unemployed people develop job-search skills, had a bachelor's degree. In fact, several had master's degrees and Ph.Ds. If they can just make it through this rough patch, they are fully capable of returning to the workforce and thriving in today's economy.

But in North Carolina and across the country, policymakers focused on indiscriminately slashing spending are squandering opportunities to help them - and, with them, the U.S. economy - succeed. Republicans from Raleigh to Washington seem to be guided by the preposterous notion that the best way to help people is by ripping away their safety net.

At a time when there are at least three job seekers for every job opening, more than 2 million people across the country have had their federal emergency unemployment benefits cut off since Jan. 1, due to Congress' failure to extend them. House Democrats have tried repeatedly to restore these benefits, only to be blocked by Republicans who are intent on extracting political concessions in exchange for scheduling the vote.

A bipartisan agreement to retroactively restore benefits through the end of May is currently pending in the U.S. Senate. But even this short-term extension could fall to continued Republican opposition in the House.

The situation in North Carolina is especially dire because more than 170,000 of our state's residents had earlier seen their federal emergency unemployment benefits terminated when the General Assembly Republicans and Gov. McCrory cut state-funded unemployment benefits below the level required to maintain federal assistance. Ours was the only state in the country to take such a shortsighted and mean-spirited step. Sen. Kay Hagan has amended the Senate bill to rectify this situation.

One needs to look no further than the budget that House Republicans will unveil later this month to see more potential catastrophes on the horizon. Matching the zeal of their North Carolina counterparts, their budget will call for sweeping cuts to education, food aid to low-income women and infants, affordable housing, and other safety-net programs that help people climb out of poverty. It will not call for renewing unemployment benefits.

These policies reveal a narrow view of what we can accomplish as a nation. From the G.I. Bill to the University of North Carolina system to the Research Triangle Park, our history shows us what we can do to help people and the economy succeed.

We must again make government an instrument of our common purpose in pursuit of expanding opportunity for all Americans. We should restore emergency unemployment benefits without delay to ensure that losing a job doesn't mean economic ruin. We should increase the minimum wage, and we should require that women receive equal pay for equal work. We should expand access to education, including our state's fine community colleges. And we should take advantage of the generous support offered by the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to 377,000 North Carolinians. Our strength and security depend as much on policies that grow the middle class and support those working to reach it as on our military might.

As we enter a new budget season, these pressing needs are more urgent than ever. Watch closely. A budget is a clear statement of our priorities and values. Will our leaders ask the most of those who have the least? Or will they make the investments needed to put our people, our economy, and our democracy back on the path to a bright and prosperous future?

Rep. David E. Price, a Democrat, represents North Carolina's 4th Congressional District, which includes portions of Fayetteville.