COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — When federal emergency unemployment benefits expired last
month, the effects ran deep in a Colorado county marked by two exit
ramps off Interstate 25 — one leading to the conservative religious
group Focus on the Family, the other to the Fort Carson Army post.
Hardly a liberal bastion, El Paso County has the largest number of people in
the state who lost unemployment benefits, and many aren’t happy about
it. Plenty of Republicans, too, depend on jobless
aid that Republicans in Congress are hesitant to prolong. The
ideological argument for standing against an extension of benefits —
that the aid can ultimately make it harder to find work — meets a more
complex reality where people live.
Democrats propose to extend the
emergency benefits for people who have been or are about to be out of
work for more than six months; Republicans are less inclined to take
that step, particularly if it means the government borrows more money.
The paralysis led to the expiration of benefits for 1.3 million
long-term unemployed on Dec. 28. Lawmakers are still working on a
The standoff infuriates people such as Lita Ness, who
lost her job as a civilian contractor at Peterson Air Force Base in
August 2012 and just received her final check from the unemployment
“I’m registered as a Republican, but if they continue to
use this not extending our (aid) I’m probably changing to Democrat,”
Ness, 58, said as she took a break from a computer training class at the
Pikes Peak Workforce Center. “People in our district who vote ‘No’ on
this, I’m not going to support them.”
El Paso County is
represented by Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn, a conservative who has
objected to the extension of unemployment benefits unless they are fully
paid for with money from elsewhere in the budget. “It’s $6 billion,
doesn’t do anything to create jobs,” Lamborn’s spokesman, Jarred Rego,
said of the Democrats’ proposal. “House Republicans remain focused on
creating jobs and improving the economy.”
Republican district is considered a safe one for Lamborn. The lone
Democrat who has announced a challenge, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irv
Halter, accused Lamborn of indifference to his constituents. “This is
just another example of Congressman Lamborn being out of touch,” Halter
said in a statement.
There are no data showing the political affiliation of people who lost their emergency jobless
benefits or tracking them by congressional district. Democratic staff
on the House Ways and Means Committee crunched their own data from 20
states to demonstrate that jobless benefits
have a bipartisan reach. They claim conservative stalwarts such as John
Fleming in Louisiana and Michele Bachmann in Minnesota represent
districts with disproportionately high percentages of people who drew
the emergency benefits.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the
liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington, said those who lost
benefits are “just a cross-section of the unemployed. They’re not going
to be predominantly Democratic or predominantly Republican. They’re just
going to be workers who had the bad luck to lose a job in the worst
recession we’ve had in 70 years.”
Economists generally say the
longer-term unemployed tend to be older — a slice of the population that
has become more supportive of Republicans in recent elections. Older
workers may be more reluctant than younger ones to change fields of
employment and surrender the advantages of years of experience.
unemployment aid can exacerbate this problem by making it easier for
those on aid to hold out for jobs that are similar to the ones they
lost, said James Sherk, an economist at the conservative Heritage
Foundation. “As the benefits draw down, they expand their search to jobs
they wouldn’t consider before,” Sherk said. “But it’s going to be a lot
harder for them to find a job with one year out of work than with three
months out of work.”
“There’s just a lot of places where workers are going to have to make wrenching decisions,” Sherk said.
Paso County spreads out beneath Pikes Peak to the arid high plains that
stretch toward Kansas. It is dominated by conservative Colorado Springs
and its surrounding military facilities, which include the Air Force
Academy, NORAD and Fort Carson. The area’s aerospace and defense
industry was hit hard by last year’s automatic cuts in federal spending,
which economists blame for aggravating a persistent joblessness problem.
At the workforce center, desperation for help co-exists with the area’s self-reliant conservative ethos.
Army veteran who has been unemployed since his discharge last year
rushed into the center after hearing his benefits may expire shortly.
“If it gets cut off, it’s nothing I’m ready for,” said the man, who
refused to give his name, fearing people would learn he’s getting jobless aid. “I understand, you can’t keep people on it forever. It’s important to get people working.”
feel that after having contributed to society, they are now being
abandoned by the government. “I paid my taxes. I’ve helped people my
whole life,” said Barbara Greene, 59, who lost her job as a medical
secretary in a hospital last year and expects her jobless benefits to end in March, “and now they’re just throwing me to the side.”
started working as a maid at age 16. She spent her last 17 years in the
labor force working in logistics and acquisitions at the Air Force
base. For the past 17 months she’s been unable to find a job that comes
close to what she had. The only positions she’s been offered interviews
for are in call centers and pay about $9 an hour — less than she made
three decades ago. She’s been stunned at how “incredibly competitive”
the job market is now.
“I find it very offensive when they say
people on unemployment are just milking it,” Ness said. “I’m not a big
fan of rejection and I get rejected every day.”
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed from St. Paul, Minn.
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AP Image: In this Jan. 10, 2014, photo, Lita Ness, 58, talks about her unemployment status at her home in Colorado Springs, Colo.