Dire Straits

Republicans’ Unemployment Shame

Emergency benefits have just expired for some 1.3 million jobless Americans, putting a huge dent in our economy. Why can’t the GOP do the right thing?

Rick Wilking/Reuters, via Landov

Thanks to congressional inaction, an estimated 1.3 million people will lose their emergency unemployment benefits on Saturday. For those people—who no longer qualify for state-based benefits—this means the end of their aid. For millions more, it’s a return to the pre-recession status quo; at most, they’ll be eligible for 26 weeks of assistance.

Given the circumstances, this is ludicrous. Long-term unemployment is at its highest rate in decades, and withdrawing emergency benefits would serve to push these people out of the workforce, to say nothing of the blow to short-term economic growth, as billions of dollars are removed from the consumer economy. And, contrary to what Republicans like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul say, this isn’t a matter of personal laziness.

Imagine if, through some miracle, every job seeker was suddenly blessed with everything needed to get a job in the current economy. Not only could she move, anywhere, in an instant, but she had a lifetime’s worth of job training and was paid exactly what she was worth. Anywhere there was a job opening, she—and the millions like her—would find it. And in short order, they would fill every available position.

In that world—which, like ours, has three job seekers for every available position—more than 7 million people would still be unemployed, and a significant number—maybe most—will have been out of work for six months or more.

In other words, our lackluster response to the Great Recession has left us with a sluggish recovery and an economy that doesn’t have enough jobs for everyone who wants to work. Indeed, without extended unemployment insurance, this problem becomes worse; absent the spending generated by those benefits, the economy will lose an estimated 310,000 jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on employment issues.

Put another way, allowing emergency UI to lapse is as counterproductive as designing your deadly battle station with a vulnerable and conspicuously vital exhaust port.

The prospects for fixing the lapse are mixed. Most Republicans are opposed to extending benefits, and argue that the program increases dependency, despite research that the opposite is true; with some form of support guaranteed, unemployed workers are more likely to stay in the workforce and continue their search for a job. With that said, there are Republicans in the Senate—like Dean Heller of Nevada—who support a short-term extension of three months. And House Speaker John Boehner has signaled his willingness to consider an extension, provided it’s offset with further cuts to spending.

The problem is that Congress has just passed an agreement that maintains most sequester cuts, and congressional Democrats are unlikely to sign on to another round of deficit reduction, just as Republicans are loath to consider new spending.

If the long-term unemployed have anything on their side, it’s that extending benefits is popular with the public, with 55 percent in favor and 33 percent opposed, according to a recent survey (PDF) commissioned by the National Employment Law Project. Likewise, Public Policy Polling—a Democratic firm—found that in four GOP swing districts, large bipartisan majorities supported an extension. In some areas, in fact, local news outlets are hitting Republicans hard for their resistance to renewing emergency unemployment insurance.

There’s a chance that this pressure will work to move a few GOP lawmakers to the “yes” camp, providing votes to help the unemployed. But, as we saw throughout 2013, you’re almost certain to lose if you bet on Republicans to do the right thing.