The problem of unemployment benefits

Should America's jobless suffer because a number of state governments still need to learn the Biblical lesson of the seven fat years and the seven lean years? The answer should be no, and both state and federal governments should make sure that it is. As peak unemployment lingers on, equitable benefits for its victims should be maintained.

A society that has bought reduced inflation in part with joblessness must not forsake those bearing the burden for what President Reagan hails as the increased buying power of those still employed. The unemployed need help now as well as the compassion and the pledge of future jobs he offered in his televised speech this week.

Yet various state unemployment compensation programs are in trouble at a time that federal cutbacks are taking effect. One problem is that, during previous relatively fat years, states failed to build up sufficient employer tax revenues to tide them over during lean years. Some, hit by jobless claims outstripping benefit funds, accepted interest-free loans from the federal government followed by deferrals of paying them back.

Now comes the day of reckoning, with interest payments instituted just when more states need to borrow. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois lead those already in debt with tabs of more than $1.7 billion each.

Some states are accepting the challenge of self-reform. But benefits are also being trimmed in some cases. There is talk of considering means tests for obtaining benefits.

But means tests are properly in the province of welfare programs. America's unemployment compensation program is based not on welfare but on the idea of assisting people temporarily to find jobs in keeping with their skills. Congress, to its credit, held out against adding a means test to the current supplemental benefits for up to 10 weeks.

These benefits were resisted by the administration until they became useful as a trade-off in passage of its recent tax bill. It is thought many congressmen will be less favorable to extending them when they run out in March than the lawmakers were just before the election. But, politically motivated or not, these benefits do provide an extra net for the unemployed from general revenues.

As it is, states have been paying for regular compensation, usually for 26 weeks, from employer payroll taxes (with three states taxing employees as well). Then 13 weeks of extended compensation in high-unemployment states have been available, paid half and half by state and federal payroll taxes. Just recently a law went into effect cutting many workers from this extended compensation by raising the ''trigger rate'' of unemployment that qualifies a state for the program. Perhaps 14 states will thus be dropped from the 24 qualified for extended benefits.

Not much more than 40 percent of the unemployed are now receiving benefits, partly because so many have exhausted even the extended benefits. The Labor Department estimates that 3.7 million people will exhaust their regular benefits this year.

Unless those statistics change radically for the better, Congress when it comes back should not just say the election is over and forget the jobless.

There is the long-range question of how far the nation as a whole should be responsible for dealing fairly with jobless claims that strike some states harder than others as regions or industries rise and decline. Interim steps might include exempting states from federal loan interest when they have sound fiscal policies while their unemployment exceeds, say, 110 percent of the national average.

At a minimum Congress ought to extend the supplemental benefits - while joining the states to develop a system that works for all.

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