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Sue Berkowitz Testifies in front of House Budget Committee

(Gannett Washington Bureau) – The federal government must provide more economic aid to South Carolina, especially to help unemployed and low-income people weather the recession, an advocate told lawmakers Wednesday.

Susan Berkowitz, director of S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia, testified at a House Budget Committee hearing on how the recession and the $787 billion economic stimulus package have affected welfare and other social programs aimed at vulnerable Americans.

“Making sure that the unemployment extended benefits are continued … is really important,” Berkowitz said after testifying at the hearing held by Rep. John Spratt, D-York, chairman of the budget panel. “It’s critical. That and state fiscal relief.”

Congress must extend unemployment this week or next week, “because right now people are getting notices that it’s going to shut down,” said Berkowitz, whose group advocates for low-income South Carolina residents.

Last month, Congress extended unemployment benefits for 20 additional weeks. Berkowitz said the additional help, coupled with a $25 increase in the weekly amount, greatly helps unemployed residents of South Carolina, where jobs are scarce. Congress should extend unemployment through 2010, she said.

Spratt said Congress is likely to extend unemployment benefits before the end of the year. The initial extension would likely be for six months, and lawmakers would revisit the issue if job growth remains sluggish, he predicted.

South Carolina has among the nation’s highest unemployment rates. In October, the latest month for which state statistics were available, 12.1 percent of Palmetto State residents were out of work. The national rate was 10.2 percent that month and dipped to 10 percent in November, an indication the U.S. economy is gradually improving.

President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus package into law in February after Congress passed it, with three Senate Republicans voting yes. No South Carolina Republicans supported it.

The measure financed unemployment, welfare and transportation programs, provided assistance to states for education, cut taxes and raised the federal contribution to the federal-state Medicaid health insurance program for low-income Americans.

Supporters want Congress to extend state aid and the increase in the Medicaid match to prevent thousands of teachers from being laid off and tens of thousands of vulnerable Americans from being denied coverage.

Before the stimulus package, South Carolina officials were getting ready to gut Medicaid, Berkowitz said.

“They had some of the poorest of the poor, most vulnerable and least politically popular (people) on the chopping block,” she said. “Our state is going to be in huge trouble if we don’t see extended state fiscal relief.”

Spratt said Congress is likely to consider state aid in January.

On Tuesday, Obama announced his plans for what would amount to a second stimulus package, including tax incentives for small businesses, added investment in transportation and extension of unemployment benefits. Congress would have to put those proposals into a bill, a process that likely wouldn’t begin until after the Christmas break.

By: Raju Chebium