By Dick Meister

THE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE system that's supposed to help some of our
neediest citizens is broken.  Yet Congress and the White House have refused
to fix it -- even while granting huge tax breaks and other favors to the

Yes, Congress recently passed and President Bush signed a bill granting up
to 26 more weeks of jobless benefits to some two  million  workers  whose
eligibility  would  have  expired by the end of the year.  But that was a
band-aid fix at best. The legislation did nothing for the more than one
million even more needy workers who already had exhausted their benefits.

"These are workers who have had to mortgage or sell their homes, move in
with relatives and cut back on food and other necessities," noted Democratic
Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

He argued unsuccessfully that they be included in the bill, in the face of
absurd arguments from leaders of the Republican majority that the long-term
unemployed would be dissuaded from looking for work if they could collect
the very modest benefits.

It's certain that many of the jobless who were granted benefits for an
extended period will he as hard hit as those whose benefits already have run
out once they also lose their eligibility. It's as clear that other workers
will join them in the ranks of the jobless.   The continued shortage of jobs
guarantees that.

How scarce are jobs?  This is how scarce:

*For every available job, there are on the average three applicants.

*The number of jobs in private employment has shrunk steadily over the
past two years, the longest decline in six decades. That's amounted to a
loss of more than 2.5 million jobs.

*Two million of the nine million workers currently unemployed -- the
highest total in two decades -- have been job hunting for more than six
months, the others far an average of nearly five months.  A substantial
number are minorities, young people and parents of growing children.

*An estimated half-million jobless have simply given up looking for work and
are not even counted in official government statistics.  Some of them are
trying to live on a spouse's income or their savings and other assets, some
have gone go on welfare, some are living on the streets.

Extending the benefit period for the millions of unemployed workers who have
used up their eligibility is just one of several reforms that are urgently

More than half of the jobless aren't eligible to collect benefits at all --
not for any amount of time.  And those who do get benefits are lucky if they
get one-third of their former wage. They average only about $260 a week --
some getting as little as $113 -- and lack such essentials as health

In short, although they are citizens of by far the wealthiest nation in
world history, the unemployed are forced to live a degrading existence that
does great economic harm to others as well as themselves.

It would make obvious economic sense if the government followed the
enlightened lead of other industrialized nations and granted higher
unemployment benefits to more people for longer periods, provided them
health care coverage, and helped train the unemployed for the many jobs that
are available to workers with the necessary skills.

The system also needs to help the millions of part-time, seasonal, temporary
and minimum-wage workers who make up at least one-third of the workforce but
who often get no aid because of rules that deny unemployment benefits to
many lower-paid workers.

And why not do what was done during the Great Depression of the 1930s to
help revive the severely crippled economy? Why not put the unemployed to
work building or rebuilding schools, hospitals, courthouses, post offices,
playgrounds and athletic fields, airports, dams, bridges and roads and other
elements of the generally crumbling national infrastructure?

Unlike the bogus economic stimulus plans pushed by President Bush and his
fellow Republicans on behalf of their wealthy supporters, that actually
would help the the rest of us by putting money into the hands of people who
would immediately spend it -- for food, housing and other basic necessities.

It actually would help provide the job growth and general stimulus our
long-slumping economy so sorely needs.

Copyright c 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and

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