Economic Recovery? Not From Where I Sit: State and Federal Action Still Needed 9/25/09 Concord Monitor
On television, radio and the internet and in the newspapers, you hear that there are promising signs of economic recovery. As a legal aid lawyer representing low-income people, I wish I could say I have seen those signs. I have not.
What I have seen are many unemployed workers struggling for economic survival. Despite their best efforts, these workers are staying unemployed for longer periods of time. They are competing against six other workers for every job opening.
Many who never previously needed to seek help have turned to the state Department of Health and Human Services for food stamps. Caseloads in all categories at Health and Human Services have spiked upward every month since September 2008.
If it were not for unemployment benefits, food stamps and other public assistance, the hurt would be much worse. In this economy, without those programs, large numbers of people would be utterly destitute. Jobs are not out there.
Here are three vignettes from my last couple of weeks.
There was the 55-year-old Sullivan County man who cried his eyes out in my office. His employer terminated his job last January. In the past year, his wife left him and he lost his home to foreclosure.
The state initially denied his claim for unemployment benefits. It took him months to get an appeal hearing, as things have been so backed up at Employment Security. In his first bit of good luck in a long time, he drew a very professional, smart and caring hearing officer who promptly decided the case in his favor. This was huge for him as he collected 26 weeks of back benefits, his first income since he lost his job.
Then there was the unemployed single mother of three who also depended on unemployment benefits. Her ex-husband had stopped paying child support when he too got laid off. She had been in constant severe pain from medical problems that impair her ability to stand and walk. She needs to lie down frequently.
Because of her lack of income, she has faced a continuing threat of eviction and utility shutoff. When she sought assistance from her town, a town official had the chutzpah to suggest that she give up her children.
Lastly, I represented a mentally disabled veteran who had been homeless for several years. He had been living in a tent community in the southern tier of the state. Imagine living in a tent through the last two New Hampshire winters.
The guy had applied for both financial and medical assistance from the state through the Medicaid program. Even though the state medical reviewers had knowledge of his homelessness for a period of months, they ignored the fact. Delay and bureaucratic indifference defined the quality of response to his case. After a hearing, he is awaiting a decision.
Unfortunately, these cases are the tip of the iceberg. According to the most recent statistics from New Hampshire Employment Security, there were 9,318 new unemployment claims in July. That compares with 5,569 new claims in July 2008. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the unemployment rate will remain above 9 percent nationally through 2011.
Wisely, the New Hampshire Legislature recognized the gravity of the unemployment crisis last session and increased employer tax rates, which had been among the lowest in the nation. The tax increase will be gradually implemented over three years, and it will help the solvency of the unemployment trust fund.
Still, more federal and state action is required. An estimated 1,478 New Hampshire workers will exhaust their unemployment benefits by December. A top congressional priority must be to provide additional weeks of extended benefits for long-term jobless workers. Also, features of the economic stimulus legislation should be continued. Specifically, boosting unemployment benefits by $25 per week and allowing the first $2,500 of unemployment benefits to be received tax free.
At the state level, the Legislature must recognize and fund the actual caseload increases at Health and Human Services. It is a dangerous game to construct budgets based on assumptions that are known to be factually inaccurate.
Those who complain about government spending for unemployed workers and for other human needs have not explained what help they would offer the unemployed and vulnerable. Doing nothing is not an option. Government has an essential role to play to alleviate economic hardship.