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Unemployment: two calls to action

Some additional help is on the way, but for millions of jobless Americans time is running out on unemployment compensation.

Latest extensions, which will increase jobless benefits to a maximum of 55 weeks, expire on March 31, 1983.

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Unless a great many unemployed people are to lose their benefits abruptly, the new 98th Congress will have to legislate extensions to the federal/state program which channels aid to the jobless.

''Currently,'' says a Labor Department official, ''only 50 percent of all jobless Americans receive unemployment compensation, averaging $115 a week.''

What about the other half? ''About 10 percent of them,'' the official says, ''end up on welfare. Ninety percent are ineligible because they have too many assets.''

Only poor Americans qualify for welfare, under tightened eligibility rules. Many people who lose their jobs are not poor, because they own - or are paying on - a home, car, and furniture.

Unwilling to sell off what the family has put together over years of hard work, these unemployed people keep up payments as long as they can by digging into assets and, in many cases, leaning heavily on a second wage earner in the family.

When unemployment benefits expire, families cope as best they can. Community projects, especially over the holiday season, often help with food and clothing.

But the problem grows. Twenty-two jurisdictions - 19 states plus Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia - have borrowed $9.6 billion from the federal government to meet program commitments. This is up from 19 jurisdictions and $7.7 billion six months ago.

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''By next year,'' says a government specialist, ''we expect the total will be 27 or 28 states, even if recovery begins.''

All this swells the federal budget deficit. Each 1 percent rise in the unemployment rate costs the US Treasury about $25 billion in lost tax revenues and additional outlays, including jobless benefits.

Since its creation in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, the nation's unemployment insurance program has undergone many changes, reflecting economic conditions. Almost all workers are covered, except new entrants to the labor force, those who leave jobs voluntarily, and self-employed persons.

Until 1970 the basic program provided 26 weeks of benefits, paid wholly by the states from payroll taxes on employers. In 1970 Congress authorized ''extended benefits,'' providing an additional 13 weeks of payments in states with high unemployment.

The cost of this extra 13 weeks is split 50-50 between state and federal governments. When a state's resources are exhausted, it applies to Washington for a loan, through an agency called the Federal Unemployment Account (FUA).

Until this year, such loans were interest-free. Since last April, as part of the Reagan administration's overall tightening of the program, FUA loans carry a 10 percent interest charge.

Money for FUA comes from a 0.8 percent federal payroll tax on the first $7, 000 of an employee's income, paid by the employer. When the fund runs low, the secretary of labor asks Congress for a repayable appropriation to FUA. More than

During the 1974-75 recession, Congress enacted a second 13-week extension, up to a 52-week maximum. On April 29, 1975, a third 13-week extension was added, making a 65-week total. Federal money alone paid for these two extensions.

When the second and third extensions expired, the program relapsed to its basic 26 weeks, supplemented by an additional 13 weeks in those states with exceptionally high unemployment.

At White House initiative, Congress tightened eligibility for the program, making it progressively harder for states to qualify for the extra 13 weeks beyond the basic 26.

Such was the situation until the middle of 1982, when - as the nation's unemployment rate rose - hundreds of thousands of people exhausted their benefits and vanished from the government's statistical view.

A glimpse of what that means to many families comes from the record number of personal bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures recorded in 1982.

Twice in the last five months Congress has legislated a sliding scale of extended benefits, up to a possible total of 55 weeks for eligible states and workers.

First extension - from 6 to 10 weeks - was attached to the $98.3 billion tax increase bill of 1982. Second extension - an additional 2 to 6 weeks - was part of the highway and gas tax bill which President Reagan will shortly sign.

Funding of these extensions, expected to cost more than $2.7 billion, will come from general tax revenues, not from the government's unemployment trust funds.

Some ''exhaustees'' - workers whose benefits have expired - will come back on the rolls for additional aid. Both extensions, however, expire on March 31, 1983 .

After that, the choice is up to Congress and the White House - a new extension or a great many Americans with their backs to the wall.

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