By Sherry Saunders, Director of Communications, Business and Professional Women’s Foundation

I think we all were heartened by the news in November that while 13 million Americans remain out of work, the overall unemployment rate decreased from 9.9 percent to 8.6 percent.  But we also learned that while the rate of unemployment improved, the duration of time out of work increased.  More workers stopped actively looking for work and dropped out of the labor force than gained jobs during the last month. In addition over 5.6 million Americans have been looking for work for six months or more. For women age 20 and over the average was 42.1 weeks. For women age 55 or over, it was 54.8 weeks.

Looking more closely at the women behind those numbers, we find that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Women’s Law Center, the unemployment rate for single mothers was 12.4 percent, up from 12.3 percent in October 2011 and 11.7 percent in June 2009. And African-American women’s unemployment rate in November was12.9 percent, up from 12.6 percent in October 2011 and 11.7 percent in June 2009.   In addition, among women age 20 or over, 5.1 million were officially unemployed and another 2.8 million were not in the labor force but wanted work.

A glimmer of good news was found in the over all veteran unemployment rates which fell in November to 7.4 percent yet remained unacceptably high, 11.1 percent, for those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan era.  For men who separated since 2001, the unemployment rate fell from 12.3 percent in October to 10 percent in November. But for their female counterparts the unemployment rate shot up to 18.7 percent from 10.9 percent in October, possibly attributed to smaller population sampling size.

The measure of who we are is what we do about these numbers that are in fact real people with real families to support. As a nation we have provided long-term jobless workers federal emergency unemployment insurance benefits, which supplement state unemployment insurance, which generally lasts only 26 weeks or less. In previous recessions, Congress always extended these benefits whenever unemployment reached higher than 7.2 percent.  But even though unemployment is expected to remain above 8.0 percent through 2012, Congress continues to bicker about extending these programs even though they will expire at the end of December leaving these real people with no money for food and other essentials. Quite a Christmas present.

If Congress doesn’t act by December 31, nearly 2 million people will lose their benefits in January alone. Millions more will lose this critical lifeline in the near future – over 6 million during 2012 if Congress continues to ignore the plight of their fellow Americans.

We also need to remember that unemployment insurance isn’t just essential for families struggling to make ends meet; it is also good for our economy. The long term unemployed are not in a position to save or invest their unemployment dollars; they need to spend them right away on food, clothing, rent, mortgages, transportation and the like. Studies done by the Urban Institute and others have show that every dollar spent on employment insurance stimulates 2 dollars in growth in the U.S. economy. Since Congress claims that jobs are high on their agenda, they need to recognize that not extending unemployment insurance will take dollars out of our already fragile economy and result in even larger future job losses.

So for both compassionate and pragmatic reasons, I urge Congress to step up and do its job.

Cross-posted with the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation Blog

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.