Targeting the Unemployed
Latest GOP Plan to Inflict Needless Pain on Vulnerable
The House Republican leadership managed to get one thing right in its bill to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. The bill does, indeed, extend the payroll tax cut for another year, but, beyond that, there is a lot to dislike. To help pay for the package, for instance, the bill would cut social spending more deeply than is already anticipated under current budget caps without asking wealthy Americans to contribute a penny in new taxes.
It also holds the expiring provisions hostage to irrelevant but noxious proposals to undo existing environmental protections. Worse, it would make unemployment compensation considerably stingier than it is now.
At last count, 13.3 million were officially unemployed and 5.7 million of them had been out of work for more than six months. At no time in the last 60 years has long-term unemployment been so high for so long.
But Republican lawmakers would have you believe that the nation cannot afford jobless benefits and that many recipients are not so much needy, as lazy, disinclined to work as long as benefits are available. When was the last time any Republican lawmaker tried to live on $289 a week, the amount of the average benefit?
Under current policy, federal benefits kick in when state-provided benefits run out, typically after 26 weeks. The duration of the federal payouts depends on the level of unemployment in a given state. Currently, workers in 22 of the hardest-hit states--including California, New Jersey and Connecticut--qualify for up to 73 more weeks of aid. In five other states--including New York--up to 67 more weeks are available. In the remaining 23 states, maximum federal benefits range from 34 weeks to 60 weeks. The cost to continue the program for another year would be about $45 billion.
The Republican plan would cut $11 billion of that in 2012 by slashing up to 40 weeks from the program, reducing by more than half the maximum 73 weeks now available. Because of the way the program is structured, the biggest cuts would come in the states with the highest unemployment. Millions of jobless workers would be quickly left without subsistence, and the weak economy would be weakened further by the drop in consumer spending.
The bill would also impose onerous--and gratuitous--requirements on people who apply for jobless benefits. It would allow states to drug test applicants and would require recipients to be high-school graduates or working toward an equivalency degree.
Curtailing jobless benefits makes sense once hiring is clearly on the rebound, which is not yet the case. Joblessness remains high, not because the unemployed are lazy or on drugs, but because there are too many applicants for too few jobs. Labor statistics show that if all the job openings in America were filled tomorrow, nearly 10 million people would still be unemployed. That works out to about four jobless workers for every opening. In a normal job market, the expected ratio would be about one to one.
We need job creation, like the spending and infrastructure programs in President Barack Obama’s jobs bills, which Republicans scoffed at. Lawmakers could also take smaller steps to help the long-term jobless, like outlawing discrimination in hiring against unemployed job-seekers.
In the meantime, the only humane and economically sensible choice is to renew unemployment benefits at a level that is up to the scale of the crisis. The Republican plan is way too small for a very big problem.