Punishing the long-term unemployed will not eliminate their need for food, shelter and clothing. Nor will it create the jobs they need to make ends meet.
Indeed, it’s not surprising that more than five years after the start of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s that some people, through no fault of their own, cannot find work.
Congress has reauthorized the extended unemployment benefits program 11 times since the recession began in 2007.
While there has been some modest improvement in the overall economy, there still are three job applicants for every job opening, meaning that there aren’t enough jobs available for the 11 million Americans who are actively seeking work.
As a result, 37 percent of all unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than six months. As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has noted, unemployment insurance kept 2.5 million Americans, including 600,000 children, out of poverty in 2012.
However, as of Dec. 28 more than 1 million jobless workers saw their benefits expire -- including 20,000 recent military veterans -- and another 1.9 million will lose their unemployment benefits over the first half of 2014. The reason is that Republicans in Congress are now reluctant to continue these benefits, though this is a relatively new position.
As President Barack Obama said on Tuesday, extending these benefits has "been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in the White House. It’s been done regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans controlled Congress. And by the way, it’s done -- it’s been done multiple times when the unemployment rate was significantly lower than it is today."
Vermont has a low unemployment rate compared to most other states, "yet many Vermonters continue to look for secure work as we pull out of the worst recession in history," said Gov. Peter Shumlin. Not only does the long-term unemployment program help those without jobs, it also helps to inject revenue into local economies, which saves and creates critically needed jobs throughout the economy.
This economic impact is striking. According to a release from Sanders, unless the benefits are restored and job hunters receive disposable income, the economy is expected to lose more than 200,000 jobs this year, per the Congressional Budget Office. Each dollar spent on unemployment insurance benefits generates $1.55 in economic recovery.
Though the Senate took a modest step forward to restoring these benefits on Tuesday by voting to allow consideration of restoration to continue, the prospects for restoration are not bright.
Republican opposition has ranged from the desire that more spending on the benefits be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget and concerns that such benefits create a culture of dependency among the unemployed.
If it survives the Senate, the extension will likely face its toughest hurdle in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
President Obama on Tuesday ridiculed the idea that American would prefer to get government checks rather than have a job.
"I’ve heard the argument that says extending unemployment insurance will somehow hurt the unemployed because it saps their motivation to get a new job," he said.
"That really sells the American people short."
Having met many people in his political career, "I can’t name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job," the president said. "They may be an older worker, may have to get retrained. It’s hard. Sometimes employers will discriminate if you’ve been out of work for a while. They decide, well, we’re not sure we want to hire you; we’d rather hire somebody who’s still working right now. So it’s hard out there."
One ironic aspect of the GOP position on unemployment benefits is that it will, as noted above, lead to more unemployment. Another irony is that some Republicans are calling for the president and Democrats in Congress to create jobs instead of extend benefits. Yet, proposals to put people to work through necessary but neglected infrastructure projects or even government sponsored jobs programs hiring people to do such things as assist in schools and public works inevitably go nowhere through Republican opposition.
Now is not the time to turn our backs on the long-term unemployed.
Now is not the time to cut off their economic lifeline and impose the burden of supporting them on already stressed private charities.
If we don’t want to continue paying our unemployed friends and neighbors benefits, then let’s create jobs for them doing many of the undone tasks that need to be done to keep America great.
~ Mark E. Rondeau