President Obama calls for longer unemployment benefits

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- "We've got to take steps to modernize our unemployment insurance system," President Obama said at the beginning of his weekly Internet address Saturday.

"If a hardworking American loses her job, regardless of what state she lives in, we should make sure she can get insurance and some help to retrain for her next job," he said. "If she's been unemployed for a while, we should reach out to her and connect her with career counseling. And if she finds a new job that doesn't pay as much as her old one, we should offer some wage insurance that helps her pay her bills."

The President's proposal would create a new, national standard for unemployment benefits, with a minimum duration of 26 weeks. Eight states have unemployment benefits that last less than that, with North Carolina near the bottom of the list at 13 weeks.

For many conservatives, that fits with a basic philosophical principal. Because unemployment insurance is paid for by a tax on business, if a state needs less in benefits, it can collect less from businesses.

What's more, as Brian Balfour, Policy Director at the conservative think-tank Civitas points out, there's the possibility that people on unemployment are less likely to find jobs than people without the financial safety net.

"When you have more generous unemployment insurance benefits," said Balfour, "the incentive is for people to be less ambitious, less likely to go out there and look for work."

Press Secretary for Gov. Pat McCrory, Graham Wilson, had a similar stance.

"President Obama appears to be focused on finding ways to make people more dependent on government while the governor is focused on solutions that help people find jobs," he said.

That argument doesn't get very far with a lot of liberals.

"The benefits on average have fallen from $300 a week to $233 a week. Try living on that with your family," said NC Policy Watch's Rob Schofield. "Our unemployment insurance system just isn't working."

"Not only is it not helping people who are unemployed, it's not putting money back in hard hit communities," he said.

"You've got rural communities in North Carolina where that money coming in from unemployment insurance is what kept the grocery store afloat; what kept the gas station afloat. When that money isn't coming in, it's no surprise that most North Carolina counties are actually doing poorly, compared to how they were doing before the Great Recession."

But outside of the argument over what unemployment benefits should look like, there's another concern: What employment will look like in the coming decades.

"As many as half of the occupations we have now are not going to exist by mid-century," said NC State economist Mike Walden. "That means many people are not only going to face unemployment due to the typical business cycle, which is really what the unemployment compensation system we have is set up for, but on top of that, we're going to have massive changes in simply what are the jobs available."

Walden says so-called "futurists" (economists who study the years ahead) are uniting behind the disconcerting notion that employment, as we know it, is changing right in front of our eyes. In industry after industry, automation is poised to rob people of jobs. And that gets to another point the President made in his weekly address.

"We shouldn't just be talking about unemployment," Obama said in the video, "we should be talking about re-employment."

Walden agrees completely. "I think what we need to do is helping people get through periods of unemployment and at the same time, helping people think about, 'Am I in the right job for me? Am I in the right occupational field?'''

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