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GOP plan: No HS diploma? No unemployment check

Out of work and without a high school diploma? If you’re collecting unemployment insurance, you may soon be out of luck.

As Congress returns from the holiday recess, one of the most pressing items on its agenda will the two-month extension of jobless benefits enacted late last month. The compromise deal, part of a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut, tabled debate on wider reforms to the unemployment insurance program.

Those reforms include shortening the length of time jobless workers can collect benefits and a provision that would require anyone collecting them to have a high school diploma or be enrolled in an adult education program working toward a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate.  

Sponsors of the measures, contained in H.R. 3630, argue that the current unemployment insurance program has been ineffective in getting long-term jobless workers back work. Some, including Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have argued that extending unemployment benefits "doesn't create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

Opponents of the GOP proposals argue that jobless benefits are an insurance policy, into which workers pay premiums regardless of their educational background. They dispute the argument that benefits are a disincentive to work, noting that even as the job market has improved, there still aren't enough jobs to go around. There were 3.3 million job openings in October, the latest data available, and roughly 13.8 million people out of work that month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Some opponents of H.R. 3630 agree that unemployment insurance programs are due for reform especially in a job market with stubbornly high levels of long-term unemployment. In the past, state unemployment offices typically offered services beyond simply distributing checks, including job counseling, resume writing and job referrals. Those programs have been largely phased out, according to Judy Conti, who is following the issue for the National  Employment Law Project.

“That’s taken away that human contact every couple of weeks and decimated these employment services,” she said. “There really aren’t a lot of people out there who are working with the unemployed to make sure their job search strategies are effective as possible, especially in this economy.”

Job training and high school equivalency programs are also underfunded, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. State and federal budget cuts have stretched adult education programs, producing waiting lists in 50 of the 51 states and the District of Columbia. The number of people on those waiting lists doubled between 2008 and 2010, to 160,000. According to the most recent survey by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

So far, there have been no talks on reaching a compromise measure to renew long-term jobless benefits beyond the two-month extension and none are schedule, according to a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. The group estimates that it would cost about $160 million to eliminate that waiting list.

If the requirement is implemented, the provision would hit older, laid-off workers hardest. Nearly half of UI recipients without a high school diploma or GED are over age 45, and 35 percent are age 50 or over, the CBPP said, citing Census data. In 2010, half a million workers age 50 or over who received unemployment insurance lacked a high school diploma. By contrast, less than a fifth of those collecting jobless benefits without a high school diploma or the equivalent are under age 30.