Obama Makes Moral and Economic Case to Extend Unemployment Insurance

The president is urging both houses of Congress to swiftly extend emergency unemployment benefits.

Posted: 01/07/2014 12:32 PM EST

Despite being out of work for nearly a year, Ebony Guy, 33, still has hope. So, in addition to feverishly conducting her own job search, she continues to volunteer at the Virginia Organizing Project, a nonprofit group that helps people dealing with unemployment and other issues, just as she did in better times.

Through her volunteer work, Guy told BET.com, she has seen "the desperation and stress" people experience when their unemployment insurance ends and they don't know where their next check is coming from or even when.

"A lot of people use those benefits to fuel their car or pay for daycare while they look for work," she said. "It's important that [lawmakers] who have the luxury of not needing unemployment benefits look at those who do and pass the legislation" to extend it.

Guy, who lives in Danville, Virginia, and is the single parent of a 10-year-old son, was one of several members in an audience at the White House Tuesday who experienced Amen moments as President Obama urged congressional lawmakers to support a measure that would extend emergency unemployment insurance for three months.

In his "moral argument," the president noted that at some point anybody could find him- or herself in need of a helping hand, which is why the program was originally created and every employed individual contributes to the system.

"We make this promise to our fellow Americans who are working hard to get back on their feet because when times are tough, we are not a people who say you're on your own," Obama said in remarks delivered from the White House East Room. "We're a people who believe that we're all in it together. And we know, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

Extending unemployment also makes economic sense, he added, because it enables those who rely on it to spend that money with local businesses to purchase essentials like food, gas and heat.

"I've heard the argument that says extending unemployment insurance will somehow hurt the unemployed because it zaps their motivation to get a new job," Obama said. "I meet a lot of people. And I can't name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job."

Before the president spoke, the Senate had voted by 60-37 to begin debate on a bipartisan bill to provide the extension, which would aid 1.3 million Americans. But Republicans in both chambers of Congress are reluctant to support the measure unless it is paid for with spending cuts. In addition, House Speaker John Boehner says such a measure should also include provisions to put people back to work.

"To date, the president has offered no such plan. If he does, I’ll be happy to discuss it, but right now the House is going to remain focused on growing the economy and giving America’s unemployed the independence that only comes from finding a good job," Boehner said in a statement.

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told BET.com that lawmakers should move swiftly to provide relief to the long-term jobless whose unemployment ended at the end of last month and save the debate for later.

"As the Senate [moves forward], someone is going to have to reach the heart of Mr. Boehner to understand that this is really not a debate that the unemployed want to hear. They can't engage in a debate on the jobs bill. All they can engage in is where they're going to get the next dollar to keep their heat on," Jackson Lee said.

Hilary Shelton, who heads the NAACP's Washington bureau, believes that the public will need to pressure lawmakers in both chambers.

"Our real struggle is in the House. Will those extremists that we too often find obstructing these kind of crucially important programs that provide for basic human needs actually stand aside and allow those who see how important it is to everyday folks out of work to be able to get back into the work force, to hold them over in the meantime," he said. "Our hope is we can make it happen."

Guy isn't giving up hope either.

"People who are currently dependent on unemployment benefits don't want to be seen as lazy. They're not looking for pity from people. They just want a hand up instead of a handout," she said. "The common thread among advocates for the benefit and those getting the benefit is that we need to work together to improve the stability of the economy."

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Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick

(Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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