With 4 million Americans out of work for more than six months, long-term joblessness is a crisis.

Even now, four years after the official end of the Great Recession, that number is about 1 million higher than its previous peak, which was in the 1980s downturn. Yet Congress has not renewed the long-term jobless benefits program that supplements state programs and is set to expire Saturday.

This makes no sense. The extension should be the first order of business for Congress in the new year.

A year-long extension would cost about $25 billion, but it's money that will be quickly spent -- creating about 300,000 jobs, economists say, to help end the need for the benefit.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will take up the extension when the Senate returns in January. The House should do the same.

More than 1.3 million people will lose these federal benefits right away, and another 3.2 million are likely to lose them in 2014 as their state benefits expire. In California, about 215,000 people are about to lose benefits, nearly twice as many as in any other state. That's why Gov. Jerry Brown has called on Congress to reauthorize them.

Sen. Rand Paul spoke for many conservatives when he recently said he believed that providing unemployment benefits of around $300 a week to the long-term unemployed was "causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy."


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While some studies indicate that short-term unemployment benefits may cause some people to delay looking for a job, that isn't the case for long-term benefits.

The real problem is that there aren't enough jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 2.9 unemployed people for every job opening.

Others argue that when Congress first approved extended benefits, in 2008, they were supposed to be for a jobs emergency. Can it still be an emergency nearly five years later? Yes.

President George W. Bush signed the bill when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. Today, it's 7 percent -- and it's only that low because so many people have stopped looking for work.

In each of the past three recessions, Congress didn't cut off extended aid until the long-term unemployment rate dropped to 1.3 percent. Today it's 2.6 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Even many conservative economists believe the government isn't doing enough. Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, recommends a federal relocation assistance program so people can move to areas where jobs are available.

Programs like this would be great. But the very least Congress can do is extend benefits for the long-term unemployed.