By Lee A. Daniels
As this is being written, more than a million out-of-work Americans have already been pushed off the edge of their narrow financial cliff by Congressional inaction; As of December 28, they were cut off from receiving emergency federal unemployment benefits.
If Congress refuses to restore the emergency benefits program for those Americans jobless for six months or longer – which has been in place since the onset of the Great Recession became evident in 2008 – another million or so of the long-term unemployed will be cut adrift by next spring.
Once upon a time, it would have been unimaginable that the Congress of the United States would leave millions of Americans – well, at least, White Americans – who’d become jobless through no fault of their own and who’d shown they want to work to destitution.
But that was then.
True, Congress in January or February may restore the program for several more months. Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is Senate Majority Leader, has pledged to introduce a bill doing just that. That’s what happened for the 11 extensions since President Bush first proposed the emergency program. Restoring the program would cost about $25 billion, to add to its $225 billion cost for the last five years.
But the Republicans in both the House and the Senate have signaled they’ll now oppose any further extension.
“These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been, ‘We need to go back to normal here at some point,’” said Rep. Tom Cole, (R-OK), clearly speaking for House Speaker John Boehner, in early December.
Apparently, the irony of using the word “normal” was lost on Rep. Cole; for the crisis facing the long-term unemployed is far from normal.
It’s not normal that in modern times 4 million-plus Americans have been jobless longer than six months. That’s a greater number of long-term unemployed the country has experienced both as a hard number and as a percent of the total unemployed since World War II.
It’s not normal that many of the long-term unemployed – many of whom held jobs requiring white-collar skills and paying middle-income wages – tell of fruitlessly looking for work for one to two to three years.
It’s not normal, as a recent White House study indicated, that at a time when there are more than three jobless workers for each available job listed, those jobless for more than a year have only a 10 percent chance of being hired for any job at all.
These aren’t “normal” times in America, either politically or economically, and what is happening to the long-term unemployed isn’t the result of the “invisible hand” dynamic of the so-called free market. While the long-term unemployed have always existed as a small group of the jobless, what is happening now is that the conservative movement is attempting to take advantage of global economic forces and advances in technology to shape – that is, construct – this segment of the jobless as a permanent significant cohort of America’s unemployed.
Yes, the Republicans’ threat to break faith with millions of Americans in need is, along with their efforts to sharply reduce food stamp allotments, part of the political brinkmanship that’s defined the GOP’s goal of destroying the Obama administration.
But these and other efforts to shred the nation’s once-admirable safety net also stem from conservatives’ ideological hostility to people who have long been trapped in poverty or those who’ve suddenly found themselves ensnared in hard times. To conservatives, the overwhelming majority of these people are “the undeserving poor” – people whose difficulties are really their own fault.
No remark better represents how this callous conservatism masquerades as respectable analysis than the recent claim of Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, that extending unemployment benefits beyond the typical 26 weeks all but a few states offer does “a disservice to these workers …. [by] causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
In other words, despite the voluminous evidence that the increase in long-term unemployment is the result of the lack of jobs, not the laziness of the jobless, Paul asserts federal unemployment aid – which averages just $300 a week – has seduced them into a getting-something-for-nothing laziness, and the best way to help them find work is to just cut off federal aid.
It doesn’t take a great knowledge of economics, or a vivid imagination to understand the combined impact upon the jobless of a withdrawal of federal aid from them, a continuing lack of private-sector jobs for all those seeking work, and a conservative-driven refusal to have the federal government to enact the kind of public works program rebuilding America’s infrastructure that could provide millions of jobs.
It’s the same message conservatives have long sent to the needy: We don’t care.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.