When federal emergency unemployment benefits expired last month, the effects ran deep in a Colorado county marked by two exit ramps off Interstate 15.

Hardly a liberal bastion, El Paso County has the largest number of people in the state that lost unemployment benefits, and many aren’t happy about it.  Plenty of Republicans, too, depend on jobless aid that Republicans in Congress are hesitant to prolong.  The ideological argument for standing against an extension of benefits meets a more complex reality where people live and are depending upon it to sustain them.

Without their unemployment checks, many will abandon what had been a futile search and will no longer look for a job, an exodus that could make the 347,000 Americans who stopped seeking work in December, look like peanuts.

Some who lost their benefits say they’ll begin an early and unplanned retirement.  Others will pile on debt to pay for school and an eventual second career.  Many will likely lean on family, friends and other government programs to get by.

Unemployment benefits were extended as a federal emergency move during the 2008 financial crisis at a time of rising unemployment.  The benefits have gone to millions who had exhausted their regular state unemployment checks, typically after six months.  Last month, the extended-benefits program was allowed to expire, a casualty of deficit-minded lawmakers who argue that the government can’t afford to fund it indefinitely and that unemployment benefits do little to put people back to work.

The duration of the federal benefits has varied from state to state up to 47 weeks.  As a result, the long-term unemployed in Rhode Island, for example, could receive a total of 73 weeks, 26 weeks of regular benefits, plus 47 weeks from the now-expired federal program.

For many, this loss of unemployment benefits leaves them with only one other option and that is applying for government assistance (welfare).

The percentage of Americans either working or looking for work has reached its lowest monthly level in nearly 36 years.  The unemployment rate fell in December to 6.7 percent from 7 percent. But that drop occurred mainly because more Americans stopped looking for jobs, many of them out of frustration.  Once people without jobs stop looking for one, the government no longer counts them as unemployed.

Because unemployment benefits require recipients to look for work, many who would have previously given up looking for a job instead kept seeking a job.  The federal benefits eased their financial hardship.  But the fundamental problem goes beyond unemployment aid: A shortage of decent-paying jobs for those still coping with the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The trend of people ending their job hunts once their benefits expire has already emerged in North Carolina, which started cutting off aid in July.  North Carolina’s unemployment rate sank from 8.8 percent in June to 7.4 percent in November, but mainly because people stopped their job searches.

But some congressional Republicans argue that guaranteed unemployment checks that go on for more than a year lead many workers to take excessive time to try to land an ideal job, instead of settling for whatever they can find.

The longer people remain jobless, the more likely their skills are to erode and the more likely employers are to ignore their resumes, according to economic research.  The result is that many eventually stop looking for work and turn instead to other government programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance.

About 38 percent of all unemployed workers — or 3.9 million — have been out of a job six months or more.  That is twice the number of people that were seeking employment during the previous recession.

Democrats propose to extend the emergency benefits for people who have been or are about to be out of work for more than six months; Republicans are less inclined to take that step, particularly if it means the government borrows more money.  The paralysis led to the expiration of benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed on Dec. 28. Lawmakers are still working on a compromise.

El Paso County in Colorado is primarily a Republican stronghold, but has a high number of people who have lost jobs due to military cutbacks and other factors relating to the recession.

Economists generally say the longer-term unemployed tend to be older — a slice of the population that has become more supportive of Republicans in recent elections.  Older workers may be more reluctant than younger ones to change fields of employment and surrender the advantages of years of experience.

El Paso County spreads out beneath Pikes Peak to the arid high plains that stretch toward Kansas.  It is dominated by conservative Colorado Springs and its surrounding military facilities, which include the Air Force Academy, NORAD and Fort Carson.  The area’s aerospace and defense industry was hit hard by last year’s automatic cuts in federal spending, which economists blame for aggravating a persistent joblessness problem.

Regardless of how you believe, this boils down to a case of indifference.  If you are not one of these people who is unemployed, you continue to live your l=carefree life oblivious to those in need.

When the Missouri River was flooding in 2011, it affected my neighborhood and threatened my house.  I lived with that fear that entire summer, never knowing what might happen in the next few hours.  The residents whose houses were not threaten, went about their lives with no thoughts toward those people who had to climb over sand bags all summer and were totally unaware of the terrible emotional rollercoaster that my wife and I were living.  If it does not affect you personally, you become indifferent to the sufferings of others.

 

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