Jobless benefit cuts to hit struggling ETexans; Local nonprofits fear they won't be able to match needs

Published on Wednesday, 25 December 2013 18:10 - Written by By Adam Russell

 This Christmas season, more than 2,000 Smith County residents, many who are the main breadwinners for their families, face losing extended federal unemployment benefits in the New Year.

Christina Fulsom, of the East Texas Human Needs Network, which helps coordinate efforts of local social services and non-profits, said Congress’ decision to cut Emergency Unemployment Compensation from its current proposed budget would lead to a local economic ripple effect and additional burdens for stressed families and local agencies providing help to those in need.

The Texas Workforce Commission reported 2,110 people in Smith County would lose extended benefits or exhaust regular benefits in the first quarter of 2014. In the 14-county East Texas Council of Governments region, which includes Anderson, Camp, Cherokee, Gregg, Harrison, Henderson, Marion, Panola, Rains, Rusk, Smith, Upshur, Van Zandt and Wood counties, benefits will expire for more than 6,100 individuals.

Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits provide federal financial support another 14 weeks beyond the 26 weeks provided by state unemployment insurance benefits. State benefits average about $300 a week.

Unless Congress acts, 1.3 million jobless workers would lose their unemployment benefits on Saturday, and an additional 3.6 million workers would lose access to benefits in 2014.

Ms. Fulsom said nationwide unemployment remains above 7 percent and that family breadwinners continue to struggle in a stagnant economy. The unemployment rate was 5.6 percent when President George Bush signed the emergency extended benefits into law.

Benefits have bridged a monetary gap for nearly 69 million Americans since that time and 2.5 million people in 2012 alone, Ms. Fulsom. She said people who are struggling to make ends meet pay home, rent and car payments and buy food face dire situations.

“They’re already struggling, getting by on a fraction of their normal pay, and will go from very low to no income,” she said.

Ms. Fulsom said these people and families would be forced to turn to social services and nonprofits, which already are stressed for resources and in the middle of fundraising season. She said absorbing 2,000 families locally and 6,000 in the region could overwhelm available charitable resources.

Nan Moore, president of United Way of Tyler/Smith County, said the additional need would strain nonprofits, which are already struggling to meet demand. Residents are calling the 2-1-1 helpline in heavier numbers, she said. They are seeking help with utilities, rent and housing options, she said.

“There’s a point where the agencies won’t be able to help everyone, and that changes the face of the community,” she said.

Ms. Moore said Tyler/Smith County is an “insulated” community with better employment opportunities and philanthropic support than many areas in the state and nation. She said it will take a coordinated effort by nonprofits and more community support to bridge the gap for struggling families.

Rocky Gill, owner of Express Employment Professionals, which helps employers find workers and vice versa, said he doesn’t know the individual situation of those affected by the expected benefit cuts, but in his experience, extended benefits inhibit people’s drive to find a job. Taking a job, even one lesser than the individual wants is the best psychological way to exit the malaise.

Unemployed people need to look beyond their preconceived ideal for a job, he said, and find work — any work — where they can begin earning pay.

“It may not be what they want to do but psychologically it’s better to work. That’s the best welfare,” he said.

Gill said there is no shortage of work, he said, and described the local job market as “unusually accessible.”

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, said unemployment benefits are helpful in bridging a monetary gap for those trying to find work.

“But, if someone cannot find work in their chosen field within six months, we should help retrain them for a field in which jobs are available,” he said.

Gohmert blamed the Affordable Care Act for the latest round of job cuts and hour reductions Americans have faced. Repealing the law and rescinding federal regulations that override state requirements would be the best first step to improving employment nationwide, he said.

Ms. Fulsom hopes Congress would decide to reverse course on their decision to cut extended benefits. She said people are already facing hardships living on unemployment and cutting that income would be devastating to the community.

“A lot of these people have never faced poverty,” she said. “It’s going to be very hard on everyone — from nonprofits to the individuals — because there is never as much as families need.