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Chris C.
Democrat DE

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  • Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act—Motion to Proceed

    by Senator Christopher A. Coons

    Posted on 2014-01-08

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    COONS. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COONS. Madam President, 50 years ago today President Lyndon Johnson challenged a joint session of Congress and the American people to begin a war on poverty. ``Unfortunately,'' President Johnson said, ``many Americans today live on the outskirts of hope. Our task is to replace their despair with opportunity.'' Since President Johnson first issued that call, Congress and our Nation have taken important steps to build and sustain a circle of protection around the most vulnerable in our society. That protection is not as complete or as strong as it can or should be, but through programs such as unemployment insurance--which we are considering this week in this Congress--we are more able to catch our neighbors when they fall and support them as they work to get back to their feet.

    Earlier this week this Senate began debate on whether to extend emergency unemployment insurance for the 3,600 Delawareans and more than 1 million American job seekers whose benefits just expired. It is absolutely critical that we approve this extension.

    During this fragile but sustained economic recovery, unemployment insurance has been a critical lifeline, one that has prevented millions of unemployed Americans from slipping further, falling into poverty. In 2012, unemployment insurance kept 2.5 million Americans, including 600,000 children, out of poverty. That means without Federal action to extend unemployment insurance, the Nation's poverty rate would have been doubled what it was. These numbers are for 2012, not the height of the recession.

    So let's be clear about what we are debating when we discuss an unemployment insurance extension. These are long-term benefits for jobless Americans who have been out of work through no fault of their own for more than 26 weeks. When I say through no fault of their own, I mean it. People cannot get benefits if they are fired for cause. As they receive unemployment insurance benefits, they must diligently search for another job. So when we talk about the millions of long-term unemployed Americans, we are talking about folks who were laid off because of the recession, are fighting to get back on their feet, and rely on those benefits to keep their families afloat, to keep a roof over their head, food on the table, their families together, and sustain them as they continue looking for work.

    Yet 2 weeks ago, funding for long-term emergency unemployment insurance benefits ran out. That meant $300 less weekly income for the average job seeker and that meant $400 million left our economy in just the first week.

    In Delaware it pulled $877,000 out of our economy. That is money that otherwise would be spent in local grocery stores and our markets.

    One of the most vexing comments I have heard in the debate over whether to continue these benefits is that they somehow incentivize people to not bother looking for jobs, to not be serious; they instead lull able-bodied Americans into lives of dependency. Given the people I know in Delaware, that is not just absurd, it is, forgive me, offensive. As President Obama said yesterday, it sells the American people short.

    I have met a lot of people in my years of public service. I have heard from and spoken with Delawareans up and down my State who are relying on unemployment benefits that they paid into when employed. Every one of them would trade a job for not relying on unemployment insurance in a heartbeat. Let me share a few stories of Delawareans who have contacted me and shared how hard this has been for them.

    Debbie from Middleton, DE, wrote to me that while she is receiving unemployment benefits, she has applied to 156 jobs. She has been interviewed three times. She is 56. She has worked diligently since she was a teenager. She has worked hard. She paid her taxes. She paid into this unemployment insurance system practically her whole life. Yet now when she needs it most, we fail to continue to provide this lifeline of support.

    Linda from Newark wrote to me that on just $258 a week her family has been barely able to stay afloat. They are doing everything they can to keep up on their bills, to stay current, but even with unemployment insurance they have had to sell some of their family's treasured possessions and goods. She wrote to me: This is no way for anyone to live. It's disheartening and it is difficult to stay motivated to keep searching.

    Frankly, she said: I am thoroughly fed up with being categorized as someone who lives off the Government by collecting unemployment benefits.

    I agree with her because, frankly, Linda, you paid into these benefits for years. This is what it is there for.

    John from Frederica told me he was laid off from the Dover Air Force Base in part because of the sequester and now depends on unemployment benefits while he continues diligently searching for another job. This is a man who is a Navy veteran, was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Yet right now, because of the partisan gridlock in this Congress, we are not there for him and his family.

    The millions of Americans such as Debbie, Linda, and John in Delaware face a very tough job market. Nationally, for every available job there are three job seekers. The longer someone remains unemployed, the harder it becomes for them to find work. The more their skills are out of date, the more difficult the search becomes and the more they need our support to sustain that job search.

    I have seen these effects up close and personal in Delaware. In my 3 years as a Senator I have hosted 16 different job fairs to connect Delawareans looking for work with employers looking to hire, and I have been honored to partner with Senator Carper and Congressman Carney in hosting these job fairs. In fact, we are hosting another one in Dover, DE, in just a few weeks.

    When you listen to unemployed Delawareans and listen to them talk about their struggle, about how hard it is to keep making ends meet and get a job, you get a sense of how important these jobs are for their survival as families and you get a sense of how much more we can and should be doing to tackle long-term unemployment in America.

    As poverty of opportunity and hope afflicts too many of our communities and darkens the lives of too many of our neighbors, let us not suffer in this Chamber from a poverty of imagination, determination, and ambition. On this issue, which is so fundamental to who we are as a nation and to our service to this body, we cannot give in to complacency and apathy. Fighting poverty is hard, and adapting our economy to the realities of a new era is a challenge we have struggled with for more than a generation. It is hard finding out how to realize an economy with growth that is both strong and more equitable, one that is dynamic and creative and competitive and also has a broad middle class, provides security for working families and leaves no one behind, an economy that invests in the dreams and aspirations of every child, but building that economy is surely one of the most urgent and difficult challenges we face. Doing so requires that we put aside our personal politics and ideologies and come together in areas where, until recently, there has been a broad and bipartisan consensus.

    I now hear some of my Republican colleagues talk on this floor about the war on poverty, 50 years later, as having been an abject failure. They make sweeping indictments on government [[Page S103]] action, putting small government ideology ahead of the shared national goal of fighting poverty. But this perspective misses the point. The original war on poverty was made up of a lot of programs, energetic initiatives that worked at every level of government, some that failed but many others that through steady and determined bipartisan work and steady improvement and refinement over the years have become critical, central, and widely valued strands that hold together our social safety net. Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, unemployment insurance, all of these programs are valued and hold American families together and sustain American job seekers. Bipartisan leaders across the decades have reaffirmed the importance and value of these programs time and time again. These programs, let's remember, are about so much more than lifting people out of poverty. They are about keeping people out of poverty in the first place. We need them to build and strengthen the American middle class, which is one of the greatest legacies of this Nation.

    As we search for ways to adapt our fight to new times and new challenges, there is no one way to win the war on poverty President Johnson declared 50 years ago. It is not a question of big or small government, Federal or local action. As President Johnson himself said: It will not be a short or easy struggle. No single weapon or strategy will suffice. . . . Poverty is a national problem. . . . But this attack, to be effective, must be organized at the State and local level. . . . For the war on poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

    This was not an ideological call for big, centralized government. It was an all-hands-on-deck call, a moral call, for our Nation to meet a national challenge. Although we have made progress since he first addressed this Congress in 1964, his call to combat poverty remains just as important today, even as our challenges have evolved.

    We have come a long way since the depths of our own great recession just a few years ago. More than 8 million private sector jobs have been created. There has been more than a three-point drop in the national unemployment rate. We have resurgent energy, housing, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors. Although a few years have passed since our economy sunk to its lowest lows, this crisis remains for those Americans and their families who are still struggling to find a job either for their families' food or to keep a roof over their heads.

    This week, while we are debating extending emergency unemployment insurance, we should note this is not only obvious and necessary to do, it is the beginning of our real work of sustaining the war on poverty.

    I am proud to be engaged in bipartisan efforts to strengthen the middle class, to focus on jobs and skills and manufacturing. We have to find bipartisan solutions that engage the private and public sectors, Federal and local governments, in putting our people back to work. While we do that, we cannot forget to continue to insist on a circle of protection around the most vulnerable in our society rather than allowing that valued circle to crumble. We have to remember we are all in this together, that ``there but for the grace of God go I,'' as we see those in our community, in our families who are struggling in this recovery.

    We know that today it may be our neighbors, tomorrow it may be us. President Johnson called on us to focus on the best of America, the spirit that we hold each other up, the spirit that builds community through mutual sacrifice. As we begin our work in this new year to jump-start our economy and spread hope and opportunity, we must never forget that basic spirit which President Johnson called forth and which has kept this country moving from generation to generation.

    I yield the floor.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Maryland.

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