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Eve Samples: Rooney's vote to block unemployment benefits shows he doesn't ‘get it'

Martin County Democrats

By Eve Samples
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney represents a region where unemployment is higher than the state average, in a state where unemployment is almost 2 percentage points higher than the national average.

The tens of thousands of out-of-work residents the Tequesta Republican represents should have been enough to persuade him to vote for a recent proposal to extend federal unemployment benefits.

But it wasn't. He refused, demanding immediate spending cuts to cover the costs.

He and other "no" votes got what they wanted: Federal unemployment benefits started phasing out on Wednesday, and they are expected to end in the coming weeks for some 2 million Americans, unless a compromise is reached in Congress. Almost 20,000 of them live on the Treasure Coast.

"I understand that the holidays are here," Rooney told me last week. "I understand that people are desperate for work, and that people want to work. I'm not one of these people that thinks that they're just sitting on their butts playing video games."

"I get it," he said.

But he doesn't.

If he wants to get it, he should spend a couple of hours watching unemployed folks come and go from the mobile career center of Workforce Solutions, which helps out-of-work residents apply for benefits and get training.

Then he would meet people like Aloras Jones.

Jones has been unemployed since February 2009, when he lost his job at an orange grove in Fort Pierce. The 62-year-old Stuart resident has been looking for work as a laborer ever since.

Without his $200-a-week federal unemployment benefits, his options are dismal. Like other workers, his state benefits expired after 26 weeks. The federal benefits provided an additional safety net in the worst job market in a generation.

"I might have to sleep in the car," Jones said. "I'm trying not to think about it, but it's hard."

The unemployment rate in Martin County, part of Rooney's district, was 11.8 percent in September. Nationally, it has been at least 9.5 percent all year. Not since 1983 has it been so high for so long.

I asked Rooney if he had any advice for people like Jones, who have been searching fruitlessly for months.

His answer was to make Florida more business-friendly.

"Florida should be attracting all the businesses that are leaving California," he said.

I don't know anyone who would disagree with that. But Rooney's reply revealed that he is out of touch with working-class life in today's economy.By the end of this year, people like Jones could be living on the street.

That has a ripple effect, too.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every $1 spent on unemployment benefits generates up to $1.90 in economic growth. People who are collecting unemployment have no choice but to spend their checks.

In Florida, the maximum weekly payment is $275 — barely enough to cover rent and food.

Yet Rooney dismisses the CBO report and similar estimates from leading economists.

"By that rationale, then everybody should be on unemployment," he said.

That's a ruse.

Unemployment benefits are not a long-term fix. Nor are they cheap ($160 billion for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30).

But they are needed as a stopgap measure during periods of especially high unemployment, and this period qualifies.

Congress has extended the federal benefits three times since late 2007, giving the unemployed up to 99 weeks of compensation — no more. Without a federal extension, 26 weeks of state benefits will be the cut-off for everyone. That's shorter than the average period of unemployment.

Rooney doesn't understand why he was maligned after voting against the extension. He says the economic policies of the Obama and, yes, the second Bush administration are to blame.

"When they fail, and people are left out in the cold like the unemployed are, then why am I the bad guy? Or why are Republicans the bad guys?" Rooney asked.

I don't think he wanted me to answer, but I'll give it a shot anyway:

It's because he's making unemployed people feel like pawns. By digging in his heels on his spending philosophy, he's showing that political grandstanding is more important to him than keeping people fed and in their homes.

Even Rooney's Republican colleague, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey of Rockledge, could not go that far. He supported temporarily extending the benefits.

The proposal is expected to resurface in Congress, but as of Saturday afternoon, no agreement had been reached. Rooney said he may reconsider his vote if spending cuts accompany the extension.

"I am going to have a very tough decision," he said.

As he weighs it, he should spend some time with Arlene Torres, a Martin County supervisor for the Agency for Workforce Innovation. She works from the mobile career center that Jones walked into last week.

Lately, she has heard from a lot of people worrying that their benefits will expire. She points them to job training programs and other resources.

"There's that sense of urgency: 'What am I going to do now? I'm going to be homeless,' " Torres told me.

That's the reality that Rooney is ignoring.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. For more on Martin County topics, follow her blog at TCPalm.com/samples. Contact her at (772) 221-4217 or eve.samples@scripps.com.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)