06:53 AM PST on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – Congress appears unlikely to act in time to prevent unemployment benefits from expiring next week for millions of jobless Americans, as lawmakers are sharply divided over whether a costly extension of the program is in the nation’s best interest.

Coming on the cusp of the holiday season, the current Nov. 30 expiration would hit particularly hard in Inland Southern California. At 14.2 percent, the Inland area’s jobless rate is far above the national average of 9.0 percent.

As of last count, 167,275 residents of Riverside and San Bernardino counties were collecting unemployment insurance benefits totaling up to $450 a week. They are among more than 4 million people across the country who would begin to fall off the rolls unless the program is extended.

“I think it would have a significant impact on our area,” said Felicia Flournoy, director of work force development for the Riverside County Economic Development Agency. “We were hit so hard, with our economy being so reliant on construction and manufacturing.”

For years, those industries served as economic engines for the fast-growing Inland area. But when the housing market collapsed, so did the homebuilding industry, leaving thousands unemployed. Despite a net gain of roughly 9,700 jobs across the Inland area last month, the region shed an additional 1,500 construction and manufacturing jobs.

Since the beginning of the recession, Congress has extended unemployment benefits several times. States pay benefits to jobless workers for the first 26 weeks of their unemployment. The federal program, set to expire a week from today, now pays benefits for an additional 73 weeks, giving unemployed workers a 99-week cushion after they lose their jobs.

If Congress doesn’t act, the expiration would gradually affect those now collecting benefits, depending on when they qualified. An estimated 2 million Americans would lose benefits by the end of the year, and about 4 million would lose them by the end of February.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in California who will suffer mightily if we don’t extend (the program),” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “We have to extend. It’s absolutely essential.”

Cost vs. benefits

A bill seeking to extend the program through February came before the House last week but failed to win the two-thirds approval needed for passage. The vote, considered the first of multiple tries at extension, broke mostly along party lines with all but 11 Democrats voting to extend benefits and all but 21 Republicans voting against the plan.

The region’s congressional delegation followed suit. Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, the region’s sole House Democrat, voted to extend the benefits, while Reps. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, Ken Calvert, R-Corona, Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, and Darrell Issa, R-Vista, voted against.

Opponents of the bill said they couldn’t vote for any extension legislation that failed to offset the estimated $12 billion cost of the program to taxpayers.

“We cannot continue to pursue these extensions indefinitely, and Congresswoman Bono Mack is unwilling to add $12 billion to the deficit at the expense of our children and grandchildren’s futures,” Bono Mack spokeswoman Anjulen Anderson said.

But proponents of extending the benefits say the nation can’t afford not to do so. Economists say few measures would stimulate the still-struggling economy more than spending on benefits for the jobless.

“We know that unemployment checks, when they are received, are spent immediately,” Boxer said. “A perfect recipe to make matters worse for this recession is to not do this.”

Holiday pain

With Congress not expected to return from Thanksgiving recess until Monday, there is little chance that lawmakers will act before Tuesday’s expiration. But even if the program lapses, Congress could pass a retroactive extension, as it has done on previous occasions.

Democrats say they remain resolved to pass an extension before Congress adjourns for the year.

Allowing Unemployment Insurance Benefits to expire in the midst of a holiday season seen as crucial to a national economic rebound would be a mistake, proponents of an extension say.

“Allowing unemployment assistance to expire would not only devastate struggling American families, but it would also hurt our larger attempts at economic recovery by depressing consumer confidence and demand,” Baca said.

Consequences could include diminished retail sales and hiring, according to a study released last week by the California Budget Project, a nonpartisan group that analyzes the impact of governmental decisions on low- and middle-income residents.

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