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Bill Eyes Diploma, Progress to GED for Unemployment Benefits

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to consider a bill that would require those seeking Unemployment Insurance to have a high school diploma or GED—or be working toward one—in order to receive those benefits. The provision is part of a push to extend unemployment benefits while revamping the program, in part by shortening to 59, from 99, the number of weeks people are eligible.

States, which provide Unemployment Insurance, could get a waiver from the diploma or General Educational Development certificate requirement if it they feel it would be overly burdensome for certain individuals (for instance, older workers). Check out the full summary here. The provision would only apply to new recipients, not those already getting benefits.

It would be a first for the federal government to attach an education requirement to unemployment benefits, said Neil Ridley, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, an organization in Washington that advocates for low-income people. (Here's the group's statement on the bill.)

"It would fundamentally alter the program by creating a new condition for eligibility," he said. And he added that those without a high school diploma or GED are "one of the most vulnerable groups" of unemployed workers. They may not have the means to seek more education while looking for a job, he said.

What's more, he said, state adult education programs don't have a lot of extra capacity to accomodate an influx of students. According to a 2010 survey, there were 160,000 people on waiting lists for GED programs.

Ridley understands why lawmakers would want to see unemployed people go after a GED, but said it would make more sense to do that through expanding educational opportunities. Unemployment Insurance is the wrong policy lever, he said.

But a spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the Unemployment Insurance program, said the provision is intended to encourage unemployed individuals to boost their skills:

Not all [Unemployment Insurance] recipients lack a high school diploma, but the ones that do have the highest unemployment rates and the hardest time getting work. We want to help states and help more people overcome that. We are setting the expectation that these individuals should be making progress towards a GED or the equivalent. And again states can opt out of that if it would be 'unduly burdensome,' for either the individual or the state.

The Senate has not yet introduced a bill to extend the Unemployment Insurance program, but it could do so this week. It's unclear whether the Senate would opt to include the GED requirement.
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