Update on UI Extension Proposal

A few weeks ago I wrote about a House proposal that would deny UI benefits to workers without a high school diploma or GED unless they were enrolled and making progress in a course of study designed to lead to a GED or another “state-recognized equivalent.” Congress eventually passed a two-month payroll tax cut and UI extension bill without this restriction, but I can’t think of any reason why House Republicans will not try to re-introduce this idea when they begin negotiations on a full-year UI extension later this month.

Yesterday afternoon I was encouraged to see that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has issued a paper on this issue and posted an article by Robert Greenstein strongly condemning the idea. Greenstein calls it “appalling even by current Washington standards.”

Greenstein’s piece, posted on CBPP’s Off the Charts blog, explains the basic injustice of the proposal:

The proposal would deny UI benefits to hundreds of thousands of workers — many of them middle-aged — who have worked hard, played by the rules, and effectively paid UI taxes for years and who then were laid off due to no fault of their own.

This would violate the basic compact that the UI system has embodied since its creation under President Roosevelt in 1935 — that people who have amassed a sufficient record of work, and on whose behalf UI taxes have faithfully been paid, may receive UI benefits for a temporary period if they are laid off and are searching for a new job.

Greenstein and the other authors of the CBPP report also make a good point that I did not consider in my original analysis: the new restriction would impact large numbers of older laid-off workers (according to CBPP, in 2010, half a million workers age 50 or over who received unemployment insurance lacked a high school diploma), and that for most of these workers, returning to high school or studying for a GED makes little sense.

They go on to note, as I did, that there are not nearly enough classes available in the U.S. right now to meet the current demand for adult education classes.

But as I wrote earlier, my view is that the bill that was introduced in December (H.R. 3630) would also deny UI benefits to some workers even if they are enrolled in adult education, because the bill required that those without a diploma or GED would have to be enrolled specifically in classes “leading to satisfaction” towards a diploma or a GED. This would appear to exclude those at very low literacy levels, who, even if enrolled in adult education, typically do not have the skills to enroll in GED or high-school level courses.

The bill also required more than just enrollment—it required workers to demonstrate “satisfactory progress” towards a diploma or GED without articulating how “satisfactory progress” was to be demonstrated. Again, I think the ambiguity and confusion that would result on how to do this would likely place even those fortunate enough to be enrolled in adult education at risk of being denied benefits.

CBPP also agrees with my assessment that the waiver language in H.R. 3630 was vague and inadequate. I think this point is going to be crucially important as the debate goes forward—I can easily envision lawmakers pointing to the availability of the waiver as justification for approving the restriction.

It’s encouraging to see CBPP attack this ill-conceived idea so vigorously. I am concerned, as I have written previously, that this proposal is just one example of an increasing effort to deny benefits and resources to undereducated, low-income adults.