It’s only been a week since the latest dismal jobs numbers came out, yet with super-committee conflict and the gaffes and misdeeds of presidential hopefuls dominating the headlines, unemployment hardly seems to be the most pressing issue in Washington. But it should be. Though last week’s news wasn’t entirely bad for women, who gained 66,000 of the 80,000 jobs added to the economy last month, such anemic growth is not nearly enough to make a serious dent in unemployment for women or men. Women have actually lost 117,000 jobs since the recovery officially began in June 2009, and their unemployment rate is higher now (8.0 percent) than it was then (7.7 percent). Nationwide, the unemployment rate is an abysmal 9.0 percent.

With the employment outlook still daunting for nearly 14 million jobless women and men, the number of long-term unemployed — those who have been seeking employment for more than 26 weeks — remains at historic levels. As of last month, close to half of all jobless workers had been unemployed for more than six months. Since most state unemployment insurance (UI) benefits expire after 26 weeks (or even earlier in some states), millions of the long-term unemployed depend on federal extended benefit programs that support workers who have exhausted their state benefits.

As we explain in our recent fact sheet, federal UI benefits have been a vital lifeline for millions of women, men and families during the Great Recession and its aftermath. Due in large part to federally funded benefits, UI kept over 3.2 million people (including nearly 900,000 children and over 1.0 million women) from falling out of the middle class and into poverty last year. UI benefits have also supported the fragile economic recovery; because recipients generally spend UI benefits quickly to meet basic needs, the benefits generate approximately two dollars in GDP growth for every federal dollar invested. Nationwide, UI benefits increased employment by an average 1.6 million jobs each quarter between mid-2008 and mid-2010.

But this lifeline may soon run out. Federal UI benefits are currently set to expire at the very beginning of next year, even though unemployment is expected to remain well above 8 percent through 2012. If federal benefits are not renewed for 2012, an estimated 1.8 million unemployed workers will prematurely face benefit cut-offs in January alone; over the course of next year, at least six million workers are likely to lose access to benefits. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 560,000 jobs will be lost in 2012 if federal UI benefits are not renewed.

I know Congress hasn’t given us much reason to hope for action on jobs, since conservative-led Senate filibusters have recently blocked consideration of President Obama’s comprehensive American Jobs Act… and the Teachers and First Responders Back to Work Act… and the Rebuild America Jobs Act. The Senate did manage to pass targeted measures to help unemployed veterans on the eve of Veterans’ Day — because millionaires won’t be asked to pay for them. But Congress can and must act to extend federal UI benefits.

Last week, Representatives Levin (D-MI) and Doggett (D-TX) introduced H.R. 3346, the Emergency Unemployment Insurance Extension Act, which would continue federal UI programs for another year. (Senator Reed (D-RI) introduced a companion bill, S. 1804, in the Senate.) The legislation would also help state governments and employers: states that borrowed money from the federal government to cover the increased cost of state UI benefits would get a one-year moratorium on interest payments, and automatic tax increases on employers would be suspended, if states agree to maintain current levels of state assistance for unemployed workers.

During the past 50 years, Congress has never allowed federal emergency unemployment insurance benefits to lapse when the unemployment rate was higher than 7.2 percent — 1.8 percentage points lower than it is today. If Congress fails to extend these programs now, millions more Americans are likely to fall into poverty, and the economy will suffer a major blow. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act would provide urgently needed assistance to unemployed workers and their families, states, employers, and the economy. We hope Congress passes it without delay.

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