Giving thanks, but still in need of help

In this photo taken Nov. 22, 2010, Frank Wallace, who is unemployed, displays a sign during a "Vigil for the Unemployed" at the Arch Street Methodist Church in Philadelphia. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to the lowest level since July 2008, a hopeful sign that improvement in the job market is accelerating.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

As families clasp hands around tables of bounty on Thanksgiving, there is much for us to appreciate and much still to be done for those in need.

It’s a time to reflect on our blessings — family members who are still with us, cherished memories of those who are gone, and important traditions that link past generations to our children and grandchildren.

The last three years have brought enormous economic hardship. But our resilience and sense of compassion have not waned. Neighbors and volunteers still help those in need, because that’s what good-hearted people do.

The United States is secure, too, thanks to the sacrifices of many men and women in our armed forces whose commitment has taken them away from loved ones on this holiday. There are empty chairs around the dinner tables of too many proud families.

In the midst of our cooking and bargain-hunting today, we should remember those families in our prayers and express our gratitude for their service, including those who have given their lives. The homes touched by war deserve that and more.

The economy is recovering slowly, and more people are finding jobs. But the national unemployment rate is still far too high at 9.6 percent; in Philadelphia it’s around 11 percent.

The result is too many families struggling during this holiday season to find food, shelter, and stability. Food banks are having trouble keeping up with the increased demand.

Economists predict the job picture won’t improve greatly for at least a year. The jobless rate is expected to remain around 9 percent through 2011. In the meantime, there is more the nation should do to provide for the unprecedented number of people still caught in the aftershocks of the Great Recession.

Emergency unemployment insurance will begin to expire Tuesday for millions of laid-off workers who’ve been unable to find jobs. Congress has been unable to agree on an extension of benefits, which provide an average benefit of roughly $300 per week.

In previous recessions, the highest unemployment rate at which these benefits have ended was 7.2 percent in 1985. If Congress doesn’t act, about 2 million people will lose these benefits in December, including more than 83,000 in Pennsylvania.

The people who rely on unemployment insurance are overwhelmingly middle-class, with a median family income of around $54,800. It provides a big bang for the buck, increasing employment by about 19,000 jobs for every $1 billion spent because it keeps middle-class families from losing more of their purchasing power.

Lawmakers in Washington increasingly will focus on deficit reduction, with good reason. But extending unemployment insurance until the economy is stronger will have a minimal impact on deficits. Allowing them to expire when many more families are in danger of falling into poverty will further harm the economy by affecting businesses where they shop.

Philadelphia’s neighborhoods include some of the deepest poverty in the nation. Cutting off this aid would only worsen conditions in our region. That’s not a step that a compassionate and grateful country should allow.