In just a few days, as the holidays come to a close, 1.3 million Americans will lose their emergency unemployment benefits.
All of them belong to the long-term unemployed—workers who were pushed into joblessness by the recession and its aftermath—and most of them are actively looking for work; otherwise, we wouldn’t count them in official unemployment statistics. But they face a sluggish, demand-starved economy whose growth has been marred by large spending cuts and senseless budget brinksmanship.
It’s a horrible position to be in. “Short of death or a debilitating terminal disease, long-term unemployment is about the worst thing that can happen to you in the modern world,” wrote Megan McArdle earlier this year, “It cuts you off from the mass of your peers and puts stress on your family, making it likely that further awful things, like divorce or suicide, will be in your near future.” And remember, none of this is deserved. These Americans are victims of our lackluster response to a catastrophic economic crisis. There, but for the grace of God, could any of us be in the same situation.
Which is to say that, in the absence of anything to improve short-term prospects and strengthen the labor market, the least we can do is extend these benefits and provide a measure of security for hard-hit families and individuals.
Democrats in Congress have proposed as much. Last week, in a news conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that an extension was at the top of his agenda for the new year. “It’s a good bill, and it deserves a vote,” he said. And, on Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters that she supports an extension, with or without budget offsets. “Workers pay into a system as they are working,” she said. “We have always considered this an emergency that springs from a downturn in the economy and that, therefore, there does not need to be an offset to it."
She’s right. The whole point of unemployment insurance is that it’s independent of normal budgetary concerns, since—in the long-run—it’s cheaper to give benefits than allow the jobless to fall into destitution, to say nothing of the boost it gives to the economy by putting cash in the hands of people who need it most.
Unfortunately, the prospects for new benefits are slim, since–for this Christmas season—the Republican Party has embraced the spirit of Scrooge.
“When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul earlier this month, an argument that, if you take their benefits away, the unemployed would get back to work. He later said that borrowing for unemployment benefits is “weakening us as a country.”
Few other Republicans have been as vocal about their opposition to extending unemployment insurance, but overall, GOP lawmakers are unwilling to provide more benefits. “I don’t see much appetite on our side for continuing this extension of benefits,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “I just don’t.”
On the merits, it’s a baffling position to take. Not only is long-term unemployment the highest its ever been, but it’s hugely destructive to the individual lives and communities.
Even after you get a job, the harm from long-term unemployment can last for years. Indeed, the idea that this is something people enjoy—that anyone wants to stay idle—is ludicrous. “If you look at the long-term unemployed, a good chunk of them have children. A good chunk are married. A good chunk are college-educated or have had some college and in their prime earning years,” writes Michael Strain of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, “It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search.” People want to work, the problem is that—with three seekers for every position—there aren’t enough jobs to go around.
But there is an explanation for the GOP refusal to act on unemployment insurance. This year, Republicans have pushed for tens of billions of dollars in cuts to food stamps, as well as other programs for the disadvantaged. It’s part of a broad disdain for those on the bottom—“the takers,” in Paul Ryan’s words—and a deep suspicion that the poor are taking advantage of taxpayers. It’s how you get rhetoric like this, from Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma—“People who are perfectly capable of working are buying things like beer”—despite the fact that these families overwhelmingly spend their assistance on food, housing, and other necessities.
It took visits from the ghosts of Christmas for Scrooge to embrace generosity. What will it take for the Republican Party? A winter of desperation and mass poverty? I hope not, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The same inequality that removes the poor from our political conversations also helps shields our lawmakers from the effects of their actions.
The sad fact, in other words, is that Republicans can vote against unemployment insurance—and food stamps, and welfare, and health coverage—assured in the knowledge that they won’t see the results.