Thanksgiving hardships show that job crisis continues

Posted Nov. 21, 2010, at 8:49 p.m.

For Thanksgiving, Food AND Medicine is preparing 300 baskets of food for laid-off workers and eastern Maine families facing trying circumstances. During the past eight years, the Solidarity Harvest program has increased threefold. It is a warning light that joblessness affects basic human needs.

FAM’s Solidarity Harvest response focuses on a local community working together to lessen hardships. The individuals, unions, churches, local businesses and farms that donate are just a small example of how a community helps those in need while putting money back into the local economy.

The government must do its part in providing immediate aid to help people in crisis by extending unemployment insurance and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families emergency fund, while also launching programs that will create jobs.

Back in September, before its members hit the campaign trail, Congress failed to extend the TANF emergency fund, which had subsidized 240,000 jobs for unemployed low-income families and youth, leaving even more working people out in the cold. This month, notices are going out to 2,000 workers in Maine that their benefits will run out by Nov. 30 unless renewed by Congress.

According to a Nov. 9 report by the Maine Department of Labor, if Congress does not act, approximately 24,000 Mainers will be affected in the next five months. Never before have federal jobless benefits been cut when unemployment levels were so high.

It is important to be clear that workers on unemployment insurance lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are actively seeking work. There are simply not enough jobs.

Nationwide, there are now 5.6 job seekers for every job available. If every job vacancy in the country were filled with an unemployed worker right now, more that 11 million workers would still be unable to find work. Every year, young American graduates from high schools and colleges add to the number of people who seek employment, and the poverty rate is already at a 15-year high. Now is not the time to cut programs that help people survive.

Last year, employment benefits helped keep more that 3.3 million workers and their families out of poverty. Most economists agree that employment benefits serve as an effective stabilizer for the overall economy by shoring up workers’ purchasing power during economic downturns. This enables workers to put money back into the economy, thereby sustaining other jobs in communities. In the past year, more than $150 billion in unemployment insurance has been poured back into local communities to pay for food, mortgages, rent, clothing and other essentials of daily living.

In this midterm election, voters gave Congress a clear message: This country needs jobs.

Congress has a unique opportunity to set aside partisanship and come together in support of hardworking people by extending unemployment benefits and the TANF emergency fund. This is the first step needed in efforts to help provide work. Joblessness cannot become the new norm.

When Wall Street and national banks were in crisis, Congress found hundreds of billions of dollars to aid them. Now, corporations and those who were bailed out have returned to making profits, but many working people are still struggling. Congress must respond to the unemployment crisis with the same commitment.

Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree voted “yes” on extensions and jobs bills earlier this year. Our congressional delegation must continue to do the right thing — both for laid-off workers and for Maine’s economy by voting to extend Unemployment Insurance and TANF once again.

Julie Grab of Old Town is a retired teacher and member of the Worker Rights Board of Eastern Maine and Food AND Medicine.

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