7,000 long-term unemployed Iowans are out of luck

Approximately 7,000 Iowans who have been out of work for at least a year have lost their chance to receive an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits at the federal government’s expense. The 2009 stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) included a provision “to fund the entire cost of extended unemployment benefits through the end of 2011, rather than requiring states to pay half of the cost.” States with unemployment rates of at least 6.5 percent could qualify for 13 weeks of extended benefits, and states with unemployment rates exceeding 8 percent could qualify for 20 weeks of extended benefits.

Iowa was among nine states that did not pass enabling legislation (a “Total Unemployment Rate trigger”) to take advantage of that portion of the stimulus. Democrats in the Iowa Senate recently approved a bill on a mostly party-line vote and urged the Iowa House to act by March 10. New employment figures to be released on that date were expected to bring Iowa’s three-month average unemployment below the threshold for qualifying for the federal stimulus program. Indeed, Iowa Workforce Development confirmed that the state’s unemployment rate held steady at 6.1 percent in January, bringing the three-month average rate down to 6.1 percent.

Governor Terry Branstad didn’t advocate for the enabling legislation, and House Republican leaders decided not to move the bill:

“[T]he House Republican caucus is not interested in making it harder to be an employer in the state of Iowa,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “What’s going on with unemployment compensation right now is making it harder to be an employer.”

I believe Republicans misunderstood the essence of this program. As the National Employment Law Project explained in a February report, the stimulus act included full federal funding for these extended benefits. Note: that report estimated that about 29,000 Iowans could potentially receive the 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits. Iowa Senate Democrats estimated that about 7,000 would qualify. That’s a relatively small percentage of the 102,000 unemployed Iowans, but roughly $14.5 million in benefits divided among 7,000 people would have meant a lot of extra disposable income in communities with high jobless rates.

It’s lamentable that Republicans declined to act on behalf of Iowa’s long-term unemployed. In addition to helping jobless individuals, unemployment benefits have a powerful multiplier effect in local economies, because the people who receive them tend to spend the money quickly on goods and services they could not otherwise afford.

Democrats in the Iowa House and Senate share the blame for not passing the Total Unemployment Rate trigger during the 2010 legislative session. When the stimulus went into effect in 2009, Iowa’s unemployment rate was too low to qualify for that money (though state officials did secure unemployment benefits through a different part of the stimulus). But in early 2010, Iowa’s unemployment rate exceeded 6.5 percent. If the Iowa House and Senate had passed enabling legislation, Governor Chet Culver surely would have signed it, and some jobless Iowans would already have received the extra federal funding.

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