by Catherine Rampell
“One word, just one little word. That’s all that Frank Ballesteros, a 62-year-old desperate for work, needs to stay afloat. The word is not “hope” or “God” or “patience.” It is, improbably, “three.” Arizona’s legislature has resisted making a small word change, from “two” to “three,” in its statutes. Only if it does will Mr. Ballesteros continue to receive jobless benefits through November, allowing him to pay his mortgage and medical bills. Otherwise, his checks stop next week. “It is almost 100 degrees out there, and I am walking door to door handing out résumés,” said Mr. Ballesteros, who worked for 21 years at a nonprofit group in Tucson before getting laid off when funding dried up. “Now Arizona decided to kill the benefits extension from the federal government because some legislator decided we’re just sitting around on our butts waiting for a check.”
That last extension of unemployment benefits — typically received in weeks 80 through 99 of unemployment — is paid for entirely with federal money and does not affect state budgets. But because of ideological opposition and other legislative priorities, Arizona and a handful of other states, like Wisconsin and Alaska, have not made the one-word change necessary to keep the program going.
Right now about 640,000 jobless Americans are receiving this last tier of benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project. The money, appropriated in the 2009 federal stimulus package, was initially intended for states with jobless rates higher than they were two years earlier. Since the recovery has been much slower than predicted, though, Congress decided last December to allow states to continue receiving the money if their unemployment rates were higher than they were three years earlier. States simply needed to change “two” to “three” in the relevant state law.
Some economists say that cutting off the long-term unemployed from extended federal assistance could backfire by putting further strain on state economies instead. Indeed, most states were quick to make the one-word change, counting on the federal money not only to support ailing families but also to serve as a strong stimulus (jobless benefits are normally spent more quickly than, say, tax refunds). Nearly every state — Arizona included — had opted into the extended benefits program when it was introduced. But now Arizona is reluctant. When Gov. Jan Brewer called a special session to address the issue last week, legislators didn’t introduce a bill. Republican legislators said they would consider the change only if it were packaged with other provisions, including tax cuts and stricter rules for receiving unemployment benefits in the first place. “We prefer to look for long-term solutions so when the Obama administration money runs out Arizonans will have jobs,” said Andy Tobin, the Republican speaker of the house.
Some Arizona lawmakers expressed discomfort with the prospect of accepting more federal money. “This is not free money,” said Al Melvin, a Republican state senator representing Tucson. “This is America’s money. We have a $14 trillion debt that has to be paid, and we need to stop spending money we don’t have.” The last tier of federal benefits injects about $2.3 million a week into Arizona, and Mr. Melvin says he believes “every dollar’s important.” Arizona’s deadline for continuing the federal benefits passed on June 11, though they could be reinstated retroactively. In the meantime, 15,000 workers have stopped receiving checks, and 30,000 more will most likely lose out on these benefits later this year, said Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Governor Brewer.
Mr. Ballesteros, who is on his 78th week of unemployment, is one of those workers. He receives $240 a week in benefits, or about $5 an hour for a full-time worker. “These politicians just don’t realize how important that one $240 check is,” he said. When he worked at a nonprofit managing a microloan program, Mr. Ballesteros earned $73,000 annually; now, he says, he is getting rejected — or worse, ignored — by employers who pay minimum wage. “A grocery store here announced it had 100 positions available, and then they had 1,500 applying for the job,” he said. “I got there about 4:30 that first day but by that time it was too late. They told me they’d call me. That was a month ago.”
Five states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana and Utah — never accepted these federally funded benefits. Of those that did, some fought for months over whether to extend the program before finally acting as the deadline approached, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada just this week. In North Carolina, the governor issued an executive order forcing the change after a long standoff with legislators.
Besides Arizona, two other states have not yet made the one-word change required to continue receiving the money. In Wisconsin, for example, the advisory council that refers bills on unemployment insurance to the state legislature has not even taken up the issue. The council comprises representatives from business and labor; the labor side has been too busy fighting back attacks on public unions. “The management side is not inclined to approve this anyway absent concessions on their part,” said James Buchen, the lead management representative on the council. “The real question is whether there is still a need for extended benefits. We are increasingly hearing from people that they are having trouble hiring workers who are on unemployment because they want to wait until their benefits are exhausted.”
In Alaska, the issue has fallen by the wayside as well, and the state’s legislature has already adjourned for the year. In separate moves, five states — Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Arkansas and Missouri, according to the National Employment Law Project — have cut the first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, which are paid by the state rather than the federal government. Labor leaders have argued that cutting jobless benefits — particularly money provided by the federal government — may be self-defeating.
When the unemployed stop receiving federal money they will cut back on spending, which means less income for local businesses. Many of them may also start relying more heavily on state services like Medicaid and homeless shelters, which are already strained for cash. “I hate the idea that I’d become indigent if I can’t even get unemployment anymore,” Mr. Ballesteros said, fighting back tears as he described his unpaid medical bills and his struggles to afford his cholesterol medication. “I’m already afraid to get sick. I don’t want to be standing in a stupid line waiting for food, too. I’m physically fit, and there’s no reason I don’t have another five years in me where I’ll be able to work,” he said. “For now I just need that stopgap.”