U.S. Catholic Bishops: U.S. House Has ‘Moral Obligation’ to Extend Unemployment Benefits

on December 13 2011 5:33 PM

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is urging Congress to extend unemployment benefits, stating in a letter sent Monday to the U.S. House of Representatives that lawmakers have a moral obligation to ensure unemployed workers and their families have the means to survive when the economy fails to generate sufficient job growth.

The letter, sent by the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, was delivered in the wake of a House Republican proposal that would slash federal unemployment benefits from a maximum of 99 weeks down to 79 weeks beginning Jan. 1, before cutting those benefits to 59 weeks by the summer. The plan also contains a provision that says individuals must have a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for state unemployment benefits and allows states to impose a drug testing requirement for unemployment benefits, something the National Employment Law Project (NELP) writes is a deep affront to the character of millions of Americans who desperately want to get back to work.

The median length of joblessness has reached 10 months, and economists estimate that there are over four job seekers for every opening, the letter from the USCCB states, before quoting Pope John Paul II 1981 encyclical writings Laborem Exercens.

Pope John Paul II: There Is A Right to Life and Subsistence

In the Laborem Exercens, a larger part of a doctrine known as Catholic social teaching, John Paul II wrote that the obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make suitable grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of ... the right to life and subsistence.

NELP, in its analysis of the GOP proposal, said that at a time where more than a third of jobless individuals in the U.S. have been unemployed for a year or longer, eliminating more than half of the benefits available for long term unemployed workers will lead to a greater reliance on state, local and community services that do not provide the same level of security -- such as food pantries and homeless shelters.

According to the report, the federal unemployment benefit program has generated up to $2 in economic activity for every $1 spent on unemployment insurance during the recession, leading NELP to estimate the Republican bill would result in up to $22 billion in lost economic growth next year.

While some argue that long term unemployment insurance dissuades beneficiaries from actually searching for employment, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded that individuals who received extended unemployment insurance benefits in 2009 remained jobless, on average, for only 1.6 weeks longer than those who did not receive assistance.

Several faith groups have reached out to Congress this year in an attempt to convince them to preserve the government program that aids the nation's poorest citizens. Earlier this year, a faculty member from the Catholic University of America delivered a letter to House Speaker John Boehner -- a practicing Catholic -- that challenged his willingness to gut social programs that aid low-income Americans while preserving tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

The Catholic Church made another appeal to political leaders in October, when the Vatican's Justice and Peace department released an 18-page document imploring word leaders to create a global economic system based on ethics and the achievement of a universal common good, even going so far as to say a fair distribution of wealth should be a moral imperative for Christians.

Meanwhile, over the summer a coalition of religious organizations banded together to form the Faithful Budget Campaign, a faith-affiliated advocacy group that worked to persuade the now-defunct Super Committee to preserve Medicare, Social Security,  unemployment insurance and other programs that aid the poor when the group was tasked with making $1.2 billion in spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit.

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