Why Sen. Warren’s Refinance Bill Is a Big Deal

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced a bill today to allow borrowers to refinance their outstanding student loan debt. The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act is an excellent step toward easing the crushing $1.2 trillion student loan debt borne by graduates and reducing barriers to higher education for working families. Average college seniors in 2012 had a balance of $30,000 facing them as they graduated. Many borrowers find themselves making payments well after the end of the standard 10-year repayment period.

Unlike most forms of debt, student loans cannot be refinanced; the borrower is locked into an interest rate from the day he or she signs the promissory note—usually as a teenager—until the debt is paid in full. And unlike most forms of debt, borrowers are unable to take advantage of lower interest rates to reduce their monthly payments and total amount of interest paid.

The question we should be asking is why the government works so hard to carefully regulate growth with variable interest rates while allowing this massive pool of government-backed loans to remain at a fixed rate, trapping millions of workers in debt and unable to buy homes and cars?

Here’s one answer: The government is profiting from the federal student loan program. It’s raking in billions of dollars every year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2025, $127 billion in profit will be made off the backs of working families paying interest on student loans. In fact, some Republican members in the House have proposed student loan revenues be used to pay down the deficit. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those same politicians lobbied successfully to tie student loans to market rates (which will make students loans more difficult to pay off as the economy improves). And these are the same politicians who fight to preserve massive corporate tax subsidies that make it more profitable for companies to send jobs overseas. Simply put, they are using the debt peonage of students to pay for billion-dollar corporate giveaways.

Corporations don’t need help from America’s taxpayers to boost their record profits. Fittingly, the Warren refinance bill addresses a major part of the tax giveaway to the wealthy and powerful by implementing the “Buffett Rule” to pay for the reduced profits. Under the Buffett Rule, many of the tax loopholes that let millionaire and billionaire CEOs reduce their taxes to almost nothing would be closed, requiring them to pay tax rates at least as high as their secretaries.

For student loan borrowers, though, it’s a different story. Unemployment, especially for young workers, remains unacceptably high at 10.6% for 20- to 24-year-olds. Wages are stagnant—and for young workers, wages are falling in relation to the rest of the population. Our struggling economy is producing mostly low-paying service-sector jobs that offer no room for growth. In fact, 42% of those earning the minimum wage have some college education, and 8% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Congress’ decision to favor corporations over students is appalling. The Warren refinancing bill helps to undo some of the damage this decision has done to students and working families. Allowing borrowers to refinance their student loans puts them one step closer toward achieving the American Dream: They’ll be able to put a down payment on a home, fund their retirement and fund their own children’s education.

Along with increased funding on instruction and student services in order to lower the actual cost for public two- and four-year colleges and technical schools, the Warren refinance bill is a terrific step toward a comprehensive policy to make post-secondary education and training available to those who want it.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Senate OKs Jobless Benefits Renewal, Tell the House to Do the Same

Senate OKs Jobless Benefits Renewal, Tell the House to Do the Same

More than three months after House Republicans leaders allowed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits program to expire, nearly 2.8 million jobless workers have lost their economic lifeline. Monday, the U.S. Senate gave those workers a ray of hope when it passed (59-38) a bill reviving the program for long-term jobless workers. Now it is up to the House to keep that hope alive.

House leaders have said they won’t take up the Senate bill, which provides retroactive benefits to Dec. 28, but only extends the program to May 31. Congress is due to leave town for a two-week recess.

Call your House members today at 845-809-4509 and urge them to pass the emergency unemployment benefits extension now. 

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chief sponsor of the Senate bill (S. 2077), said:

The beneficiaries of this bill have earned these UI [unemployment insurance] benefits through hard work, and they have the right to expect their representatives in Congress would not stand in the way of this emergency assistance. Reauthorizing emergency UI benefits in times of economic hardship has historically not been a partisan issue, and it’s time we revert to that longstanding tradition of extending a hand to our fellow Americans in their time of need.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

It has been a long cold winter for 2.8 million Americans who have been callously cut off from receiving emergency unemployment benefits.  Today’s vote in the Senate is a critical step in thawing the long economic freeze that families have suffered through.  What’s next?  Finding enough Republican leaders in the House who have the backbone to stand with working people rather than cater to extreme partisan ideology.  We believe it’s possible. We call on Members of the House to quickly renew these crucial benefits.  It is shameful that families in need have had to wait this long.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Senate Reaches Bipartisan Deal on UI

Senate negotiators announced this evening that they have reached a bipartisan agreement on a bill to revive the Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits that expired at the end of 2013. Since then more than 2 million long-term jobless workers have lost their benefits.

Action on the bill will not occur until at least March 24, following the upcoming Senate recess/state work period. Details on the bill were not released. In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged lawmakers to move quickly.

Every day that goes by where families have to decide between heating bills and putting gas in the car to drive to a job interview is a day that we are failing America’s workers.  The Senate should act immediately to extend unemployment benefits and the House should quickly follow.

Since the first of the year Republicans have blocked action on several attempts to revive the jobless aid for long-term unemployed workers. But Trumka said that today’s announcement “is a good sign that there is bi-partisan agreement and that the Senate is working together to get this done.”

If the Senate acts swiftly and responsibly it looks like 2 million jobless Americans may be closer to getting relief in the form of emergency unemployment insurance.  We will have to look closely at what a final deal looks like and whether it adds additional burdens to workers who are already struggling.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Republican UI Bill Not What It Seems

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You’ve got to feel bad for folks who go through life so distrustful and suspicious of their fellow citizens that they believe people are always trying to get away with something, trying to game the system. Like those millions of jobless workers who would rather lay back and collect $300 or so a week in unemployment insurance (UI) benefits than go out and try to find a job that pays a decent wage and gives them a chance to support a family, keep a roof over their heads and climb a step or two up the ladder.

Yep, you’ve got to feel bad for Republican senators. You see, that must be the way they feel about the nation’s 3.8 million long-term jobless workers. Why else would they introduce a bill that renews the Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits they let expire at the end of 2013 (and have voted against three times) but would also allow states to deny help to jobless workers who are not in a job training program or completing 20 hours a week of so-called ”community service” or jumping through new hoops to prove they are looking for work.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about this Republican proposal from Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) who’s obviously more concerned about pushing conservative policy based on myths about people without jobs.

There are nearly three unemployed men and women for every job opening in the United States. So it’s not as if all the jobless have to do is shine their shoes and head out the door to the job market.

Republicans have long led the drive to cut funding for job training—even for those who have had their jobs exported (see Trade Adjustment Assistance). Most states now lack funding for job training and job retraining for all who need it.

“Community service” may sound like a good idea, but 20 hours a week cleaning up parks or painting benches is 20 hours a week taken away from a job search. BTW, current federal law prohibits states from requiring unemployed workers to engage in community service to public workers projects as a condition of receiving benefits.

The Republican bill sets up new administrative hurdles for both jobless workers and the states to prove that unemployed workers are indeed job hunting instead of golfing with those 20 hours less a week to look for work.

What happens if an unemployed worker fails to meet the new standards? The worker is disqualified for benefits “indefinitely” or until he or she is re-employed for at least four weeks and earns at least four times the weekly benefit amount. Take a minute and read that again carefully. A worker who can’t find a job can only receive jobless benefits after he or she finds a job that pays more than the unemployment benefit.

The next time you hear some Republican senator claiming to support restoring UI for the long-term jobless, remember, thanks to their inaction, 2 million jobless workers have lost benefits and that number will continue to rise. (Mouse over the photos from the National Employment Law Project in this post to learn more about three workers who were cut off from long-term unemployment benefits.)

Call your senators at 845-809-4509 and urge them to pass a clean emergency unemployment benefits extension, not the Republican bill offered by Heller that punishes workers more than it helps.

Read anonymous confessions from jobless workers here.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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Number of Unemployed Americans Without Benefits Reaches 2 Million

According to the National Employment Law Project, as of this week 2 million unemployed individuals are without unemployment insurance, due to Congress’ decision to let extended benefits expire back in December.

The end of unemployment insurance is yet another stiff break for families that have been struggling with long-term unemployment.

According to the report:

“Families dealing with extended job loss have been found to experience significant increases in poverty during that period. Other research has drawn links between a parent’s job loss and a child’s performance at school.”

Millions of hardworking Americans are being penalized for a terrible economy that they didn’t help create. These people aren’t lazy, as evidenced by their previous employment, and they aren’t using government assistance as a solution to their problems, they simply cannot find work.

The number of out of work and out of luck Americans will continue to grow until Americans band together and tell their Senators to renew unemployment insurance.

Tell your Senator to end the games: renew unemployment insurance now.

Photo courtesy of James Lee on Flickr.

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More Budget Talk, and Excellent Evidence for Raising the Wage: Punching In

 

The 2015 budget

Obama’s progressive budget, fantasy or soon-to-be reality?

With an upcoming election, the new budget provides a sharp contrast between the right and the left.

The minimum wage debate

Great news for raising the wage: The state with the highest minimum wage also has the most jobs.

Medicaid expansion

The privatization of Medicaid? Arkansas’ unique, private-insurance-through-public-funding plan has survived.

Protesters in favor of Medicaid expansion were arrested in South Carolina, yesterday.

These four states are nearing a compromise on expansion.

Unemployment insurance

An interesting, and very personal look at the people who are coping with the loss of unemployment benefits.

 

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Mark Kirk Could Single-Handedly Break The Senate Stalemate on Unemployment Insurance. But He’s Focused on Other Things.

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In January, Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois was one of six Republicans to allow a bill extending unemployment insurance (UI) to proceed in the Senate.

But when the bill was coming up for a cloture vote, Kirk said that he would only vote for it if the costs were offset by spending cuts.

After much negotiation, Democrats and Republicans figured out a solution to pay for extending unemployment insurance. That bill was expected to break the filibuster on February 6, but it fell one vote short. Going back on his promise, had Kirk remained with the filibuster. On Twitter, he said it was because the negotiated offsets were “political gimmicks.”

Let’s get back to gimmicks in a second. First, here’s what’s happening while the Republican-led filibuster of UI remains in place.

The number of Americans without emergency unemployment benefits continues to grow. 1.3 million Americans, including 20,000 recent veterans, lost UI when the benefits first expired last December. Since then, another 400,000 Americans have joined their ranks.

Illinois has an unemployment rate higher than the national average, 8.9 percent as of October. More than 119,000 Illinois residents will lose benefits by the end of next week if UI is not extended. Not surprisingly, polling shows they support a UI extension 63-31.

The same poll showed that 40 percent of respondents say they are less likely to vote for Kirk because of his obstruction of UI.

It’s not clear what Kirk is waiting for. It is clear, however, how he has been spending his time and office resources.

Other than the one tweet, Kirk didn’t issue a press release about his vote. On his official website, there is no information on why he voted for, then twice against, extending unemployment insurance.

But there is an extensive Flash-powered page dedicated to the 11 Olympic athletes who hail from Illinois.

Kirk’s office also posted extensively on all his social media channels for the two week duration of the Sochi games.

Seems like Senator Kirk is plenty familiar with “political gimmicks.”

By April 5, the total number of Americans cut off from emergency unemployment insurance will reach 2.3 million. At any time, Senator Kirk can drop his support for the Republican-led filibuster and allow the bill to proceed on an up-or-down vote. Like he said he would.

Isn’t that the least he can do for 1.7 million job-seekers? Or do unemployed Illinoisans have to be Olympic athletes to get their Senator’s attention?

Tell your Senator to end the games: renew unemployment insurance now.

Photo by juggernautco on Flickr

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Senate Fails to Renew Emergency Unemployment Aid

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released this statement after a procedural vote on extending emergency unemployment insurance benefits failed in the Senate:

Today the Senate once again failed to approve an extension of emergency unemployment insurance, 40 days after the benefit was allowed to lapse. The bill fell short by one Republican vote. Just one vote prevented 1.7 million Americans from receiving a desperately needed lifeline. On Monday I joined Sheri Minkoff, an unemployed worker and single mother from Pittsburgh, in urging the Senate to help the millions of workers who are struggling. Sheri, like so many others, worked for years before losing her job in an economy that isn’t adding jobs nearly fast enough. Despite her experience, she has been unable to find work and has even been forced to dip into her son’s savings to pay for essentials. No family should have to experience what Sheri has, especially when there are not enough jobs for those who want to work. We urge the House and the Senate to make this right for Sheri and so many others. And we will not stop fighting until it happens.

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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The Super Important Part of the Unemployment Insurance Debate the Media Keeps Ignoring

A quick survey of news clips about Congress from the past year, particularly the U.S. Senate, will yield a lot of this type of phrasing: Bill fails in Senate. Senate can’t agree on new law. Gridlock rules as Senate agreement fails. Bill can’t get the votes to pass the Senate.

So when pollsters go out and ask the American people what they think about Congress, they respond in kind. People overwhelmingly want “less gridlock.” They want politicians of both parties to “work together to find solutions.” 9 times out of 10, this doesn’t happen, which leads to more dissatisfaction.

People, for the most part, are suggesting an incorrect solution because they are presented with an incorrect problem.

In the U.S. Senate, the problem is the radical abuse of the filibuster, mainly by the Republican caucus lead by Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This forces bills to need 60 votes to reach “cloture,” instead of the usual outright majority of 51 votes.

In 1975, Senate rules changed, allowing Senators to enforce a 60-vote threshold without the “talking filibuster” made famous by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the interest of fairness,  it’s true that neither party has their hands clean when it comes to use of the filibuster. But sheer numbers show that since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2006, and especially since President Obama was elected, the 60-vote enforcement has been out of control.

There have been many bills that have received the majority of votes–50, 55, or even 59 votes–in the U.S. Senate that haven’t become law simply because of this procedure. But the headlines make it seem like it’s just a bunch of politicians who won’t agree. Ari Melber wrote this after a filibuster of President Obama’s jobs bill in October 2011:

If you glance at the headlines, though, you’d think the Senate just failed to come up with the votes for this bill. Here are just a few typical (and influential) examples:

OBAMA’S JOBS BILL HITS WALL IN SENATE (WSJ)
JOBS MEASURE IS DEFEATED IN SENATE TEST (NYT)
OBAMA’S JOBS BILL FAILS TO ADVANCE IN SENATE DESPITE WHITE HOUSE PUSH (Fox News)

Political reporters have become so accustomed to the constant abuse of the filibuster, they don’t even lead with the news here: A jobs bill during an unemployment crisis has majority support, but is being blocked from a straight vote.

So in the case of emergency unemployment insurance, a vital lifeline for 1.3 million Americans, including about 100,000 veterans and at least 20,000 recent veterans, let’s not be asking “why can’t they agree” or “why is there gridlock.”

We should be asking why, with long-term unemployment at an all-time high, is this bill not receiving a simple, 50-vote majority up-or-down vote?

Call your Senator now, and tell them to immediately renew unemployment insurance.

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Sen. Ayotte Pits Unemployed Workers Against Poor Children

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Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has a plan. She says that to pay for extending unemployment insurance (UI), we should cut off the Child Tax Credit for 2 million families (5 million children), most of them Latino.

Let’s repeat that because it sounds kind of important.

To help the families of the 1.3 million workers who have been out of work for six months or more and lost their UI payments just before Christmas, Ayotte’s solution is to take money away from poor Latino children whose families are taxpayers.

That may be a valid solution to the extremists who run the Republican Party these days, but it comes across as a vindictive and mean-spirited move to most people, including a coalition of organizations that condemned the proposal in a Monday press conference.

“Senator Kelly Ayotte says she understands families, but her proposal to deny a child tax credit to a taxpaying immigrant family is an attack on innocent children. Pitting children against the long-term unemployed is nothing more than an ugly attempt to derail legislation to extend emergency unemployment for struggling families,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice group that is part of the coalition. “Her proposed amendment should be soundly defeated as antithetical to the Gospel call to care for children and those at the margins of society, and to long-held values in our nation.”

The AFL-CIO is also part of the coalition and Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre also condemned Ayotte’s plan:  “This cynical proposal doesn’t reflect the America I have come to know and love as an immigrant. My America doesn’t need to pit the jobless against the children of immigrants. We are better than that.”

The proposal targets not only aspiring citizens, but any individual not eligible for a Social Security Number, something that isn’t limited to undocumented immigrants. Ayotte’s proposal would deny Child Tax Credit eligibility to families using the alternate option for those who can’t obtain a Social Security Number, the Individual Tax Identification Number, and who are legally eligible for the Child Tax Credit.  This would deny the credit to approximately 5 million children in low-wage families, making it harder for those families to feed and provide housing for these children.

A recent poll on the topic found the obvious that voters oppose cuts to the Child Tax Credit, with 68% of those surveyed in opposition.

Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Reposted from AFL-CIO NOW

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