Cutting off unemployment is a disgrace

The Washington PostJanuary 16, 2014 

Shame on Republicans for blocking the resumption of long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans. And shame on Democrats for letting them.

The GOP cannot be allowed to cast this as a bloodless policy debate about “incentives” that allegedly encourage sloth. Putting that spin on the issue is disingenuous, insulting and inaccurate: As Republicans well know, individuals receiving unemployment checks are legally required to look for work.

Republicans should also know that the jobless desperately want employment. For some, a new job might be just weeks or months away. But the benefits cutoff may make it impossible to keep house and home together in the meantime.

Last week, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez convened a group of the long-term unemployed to share their stories with members of his department’s staff. All were over 50 and once held white-collar jobs; some earned six-figure salaries. The session was heartbreaking but also inspiring — and it made me wonder why Democrats aren’t screaming louder, in sheer outrage, about this GOP exercise in gratuitous inhumanity.

There was Carol Scott of Baltimore, who lost her job as a program administrator at Johns Hopkins University medical school in 2010. With a master’s degree in psychology, she keeps getting told that she is overqualified for jobs paying less, which she would happily take. She has been scraping by with help from her mother and sister, in addition to unemployment benefits.

There was Kevin Meyer from New Jersey, who lost his job in corporate communications, accepted another job at a 40 percent pay cut, and then lost that job, too. He said that in the last two years he has sent out hundreds of résumés, sat for about two dozen fruitless interviews and endured a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Now, he said, he is “racing the clock to avoid foreclosure.”

There was Johnetta Thurston of Odenton, Md., who lost her position as a human resources executive in May 2011 and continues to apply for job after job. After being turned down, she always calls to ask why; if it was because she lacked a particular skill or professional certification, she goes out and gets it. She managed to win a few short-term consulting contracts, but the last one ended in October.

And there was Steve Bolton, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Bolton spent 22 years in the Army before retiring and going to work for a defense contractor. He was laid off last June and now finds himself “at the bottom of my barrel,” with no savings left and no job in sight. “Fortunately, we were able to pay our mortgage this month,” he said.

These are people whose lives have been buffeted by forces beyond their control — the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, globalization and outsourcing, and irrational federal spending cuts. They have skills and experience; they are willing to reinvent themselves. Isn’t it in society’s interest to give them a chance?

It has been common practice for the federal government to extend unemployment benefits in hard economic times — and to do so on a bipartisan basis, without insisting that the funds be taken out of some other program’s hide. The cost of a full one-year extension would be just $25 billion, little more than a rounding error in a trillion-dollar federal budget.

It would be sound economic policy for the government to finance that extension through borrowing. Interest rates are at historic lows, and the deficit has been falling dramatically, making this a good time for capital investments. In this case, rather than building roads or airports, we would be investing in the nation’s human capital.

And spending that money would create about 200,000 jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office — thus putting some of the long-term unemployed back to work.

But while Congress inches forward, probably toward some kind of extension, lives are falling apart. All day, every day, Democrats ought to be making a loud and righteous noise over this disgraceful state of affairs.

Eugene Robinson, a columnist at The Washington Post, may be reached at eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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