With unemployed drowning, Congress hands them an anchor
— December 24, 2013
Many members of Congress are patting themselves on the back over the budget deal worked out between House Republicans and Senate Democrats that should prevent a federal government shutdown.
I think a slap upside their collective head is more appropriate. If you think that’s a tad mean-spirited given the holiday season, let me remind you that for 1.3 million unemployed men and women and their families, Christmas isn’t going to be a jolly time this year because of Congress.
These Americans have been out of work so long they’ve exhausted their state unemployment benefits. But thanks to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) law passed after the economy crashed in 2008, at least they had some help to pay their bills and avoid being taken to collection, going hungry or thrown into the street.
Three days after Christmas, that assistance will be gone. The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services says 427 state residents will immediately have their federal benefits eliminated. The Center for American Progress estimates 4,300 jobless in Wyoming will eventually be affected. Nationally, another 1.9 million will be added by mid-year if Congress does not act.
So much for the social safety net. Congress had already cut a huge hole in it by reducing unemployment benefits (Wyoming’s have been cut by one-third since 2011). Now, there will be no help beyond the 26 weeks available in each state, even though the average length of unemployment nationally is 36 weeks.
The budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) could have easily included an extension of unemployment benefits, which President Barack Obama and progressive Democrats in both chambers sought. Despite the constant carping by Tea Party Republicans, the GOP unquestionably came out a winner in the compromise, since the final budget is much closer to the overall lower level of spending recommended by Ryan. There was room and time to negotiate instead of caving in just to pass something and go home.
Democrats should have demanded to include the EUC benefits. Amazingly, party leaders acted like it was no big loss. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), weakly explained, “This isn’t a perfect bargain; no compromise is ever perfect.”
Reid noted the agreement rolls back some significant sequester cuts to education, medical research and defense jobs. I hope the deal also helps avert another damaging federal shutdown, but it doesn’t justify making things even harder for the jobless, too many of whom are already drowning in debt.
Last year Congress also made EUC benefits a sticking point in budget talks, and didn’t get around to approving an extension until January. The checks were ultimately made retroactive to the cut-off point in December 2012, but there’s no guarantee that will happen this time.
If 1.3 million Americans continue receiving their unemployment checks, that money will be directly pumped back into the economy to pay for such essentials as food, shelter and gas. EUC benefits boost the economy, and would put enough money into circulation next year to support an estimated 310,000 new jobs, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
Without the EUC, the unemployed will seek assistance from other programs just to scrape by while they continue to look for work. Any savings the feds derive from spending less on unemployment aid will likely be more than offset by increases elsewhere. Thanks to the sequester, many social service agencies’ budgets have been hit so hard they will have trouble keeping food banks, emergency shelters and soup kitchens open, while facing an increasing demand for these services.
More of the unemployed will be forced to seek help from those who will only drive them further into debt, maxing out credit cards and using payday loan businesses that charge astronomical interest rates. It’s insane that for many on the conservative right, the biggest issue being talked about is whether or not we should all say “Merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays.” Congress deserves a great big “bah humbug” and stockings full of coal.
What gripes me is some lawmakers’ foolish belief that these Americans are to blame for their own misfortune, and that if only they would get off their lazy behinds and get a job, they would prosper. Those on the nation’s unemployment rolls are there through no fault of their own – if the loss of a job was their fault, they wouldn’t be entitled to any benefits.
The nation’s unemployment rate is down to 7 percent, but while more people are finding work, many are minimum-wage positions without any benefits. Competition is fierce, and it’s difficult to land a good-paying job in an economy that is still recovering. Meanwhile, the number of weeks the unemployed can receive benefits has been significantly cut in many states. In Wyoming, the federal program was already reduced to only 14 weeks.
The biggest insult of all is when officials like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) say that government has to end unemployment payments to those who are still jobless in order to get them to look for work. Otherwise, supposedly there is no incentive to get a job, because they can just live large off the government and the taxes paid by people who are gainfully employed.
“I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for [by states],” Paul recently told Fox News. “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers.”
Yes, it’s certainly a great disservice for people without any income to be able to feed their families. We can’t insult them like that!
“When you allow people to be on unemployment for 99 weeks,” the senator added, “you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
Tea Party favorite Paul is clueless on many issues, but his views on unemployment are totally asinine on two levels. First, to keep unemployment benefits, recipients are required to actively search for jobs. Unemployment may be down, but there’s no job fairy creating new positions. There are still many more people looking for work than jobs available.
Second, the average unemployment check is $269 a week. Does anyone seriously think that’s enough for the average person or family to live on, and that it’s a disincentive to look for a job? How can anyone who claims to represent us be that ridiculously out-of-touch with the real world?
And let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons our economy has not made a stronger recovery is because for the past five years, Republicans have tried to block every single attempt made by Obama and Senate Democrats to create more jobs. Now they have the audacity to act like it’s the workers’ fault they’re unemployed.
It’s unconscionable that lawmakers left Washington, D.C., to celebrate the holidays while leaving so many Americans in the lurch. The GOP did it out of callousness, while many Democrats chose not to fight harder for the jobless and were willing to sacrifice them. These officials are the ones who deserve to join the ranks of the long-term unemployed.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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