AUGUSTA — On Dec. 28, right between Christmas and New Year’s, federal emergency unemployment compensation will expire, taking away the last form of jobless aid available to more than 3,000 long-term unemployed workers here in Maine. By the middle of next year, an additional 9,000 Mainers and their families will be left without any form of jobless assistance.

Beyond the devastating impact the loss of this critical aid will have on thousands of Maine’s families, the loss of emergency unemployment compensation will have seriously damaging effects on our state’s economy.

Pulling the plug on emergency unemployment compensation will result in a loss of $52.9 million in federally funded benefits directly circulating in Maine’s economy in 2014, and a loss of an estimated 675 jobs.

Long-term unemployment remains at crisis levels, with more than a third of the nation’s 10.9 million unemployed out of work for six months or more. Job market conditions today remain worse than when Congress and President Bush established emergency unemployment compensation in June 2008.

The goal of the program is to extend unemployment benefits, averaging roughly $1,166 a month, to people who had exhausted state-level support. The average benefit covers about half the typical expenses of a family, but can provide just enough support to keep a roof over their heads, food on their tables and heat in their homes. By covering a family’s most basic expenses, emergency unemployment compensation keeps jobseekers and their families afloat during the long search for employment in an economy where there are still multiple applicants for every job.

According to the National Employment Law Project, unemployment insurance kept about 1.7 million people out of poverty last year, including 446,000 children. The Center for Poverty Research found that since 2009, unemployment insurance has been responsible for a 25 percent reduction in poverty among children with an unemployed parent.

Yet Congress went home for the holidays, turning their backs on millions of long-term unemployed workers and their families across the country. Nationwide, 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers will immediately lose their benefits when the program expires, with 3.6 million more people joining them within six months. The termination of emergency unemployment compensation will remove nearly $20 billion from our national economy and threatens to cost us 240,000 jobs – hardly a job-creation or economy-boosting policy.

Headlines recently have been dominated by the sad facts of our current economy. Food pantries can’t keep up with demand. Programs that gather toys for low-income kids need more donations. There’s a constant call for coats and shoes for cold children. Homelessness in Maine is growing, and our shelters are overburdened.

Poverty in America is real and pervasive. It manifests itself as homelessness, hunger and instability, and touches every corner of our state. Allowing emergency unemployment to expire will make it much worse and push thousands of Maine’s families over the edge.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that the first order of business when Congress returns from the holidays will be to reauthorize the federal program of jobless aid. The White House, which recently issued a report documenting emergency unemployment compensation’s beneficial impact on workers, their families and the economic recovery, also has made clear that the extension is a top administration priority.

When Congress returns to session in January, it must act immediately to renew emergency unemployment compensation. At stake is the economic security of millions of people who have worked hard, played by the rules but continue to struggle against the undertow of a global recession.

Emergency unemployment compensation is a program for working people facing tough times and makes a difference in thousands of lives and in every county in Maine. It helps the mill worker whose job moves overseas; the cashier at a small business that could no longer hang on; the office worker who lost her job when the company downsized; the teacher who was laid off, and the construction worker whose company doesn’t have enough work.

The long-term unemployed are members of our communities, and our economy won’t recover without them. Congress must prioritize renewing emergency unemployment compensation when they return to session, and restore this vital program for the well-being of millions of families and our economy.

— Special to the Press Herald