Extended unemployment insurance (UI) lapsed at the end of 2013, despite an unemployment rate that seems to be going down more because of labor market dropouts than an actual increase in the number of jobs. The best option would have been to extend unemployment insurance as part of the budget deal that averted another shutdown; now, Congress is left to try and figure out a way to pass a stand-alone extension. It hasn’t gone well so far.
Senate Democrats’ attempts to pass an extension of UI benefits for the long-term unemployed crashed into a Republican filibuster. Across the building in the Republican-controlled House, there doesn’t even seem to be a cursory effort to extend UI.
Whether economic inequality affects economic growth is a matter of heated debate. But for the personal prospects of the long-term unemployed, there’s no question: economic inequality is having a clear, negative impact on their lives.
Republicans’ response to unemployment isn’t a policy proposal; it’s a fable, a comforting just-so story about helping people by taking away the benefits they rely on in a time of high unemployment and stagnant paychecks. And, not coincidentally, it’s a story that the very wealthiest voters have every reason to believe in and encourage.
Studies indicate that the wealthier you are, the more effectively the political system responds to your preferences — and rising economic inequality means that the priorities of elected officials get narrower and narrower. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fight over extending unemployment insurance.
The two excuses Republican politicians are offering for stalling on extending unemployment benefits perfectly illustrate the disconnect between the world as seen by the very wealthy and the world as it actually is for everyone else.
The first excuse is that UI extension needs to be “paid for.” Supposedly “moderate” Senate Republicans like Maine’s Susan Collins let Democrats’ UI bill come to the floor, but filibustered a final vote because they insist on having the extension balanced out by cuts to other programs. This is a debatable idea under almost any circumstances, but right now, with deficits falling fast and unemployment still high, it’s stupid and counter-productive.
It should come as no surprise that debt and deficits are a much higher priority for richer voters, and unemployment a much higher priority for middle-class and low-income voters. Blocking UI extension over deficits shows exactly which voters these Senate Republicans think count for more.
The second and more insidious excuse is an attack on the very concept of UI and of anti-poverty programs generally: the idea that all we’re doing with these programs is creating “dependency” and undermining the “incentives” to find work. “People, if you pay ’em for years and years, they won’t look for a job,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL, pictured above) said. “This creates no job. It’s just a check.”
Left out of Shelby’s analysis is the fact that the ongoing jobs crisis means there are more job-seekers than job openings. He also ignores the fact that the money you put in unemployed people’s pockets gets put right back into the economy as they spend it, creating demand and supporting jobs. But Shelby would rather moralize about the effects of UI than acknowledge its importance.
It’s extremely important to a lot of people in our political system to think that the universe rewards virtue with wealth and punishes sin with poverty. You can see it in the conservative obsession with marriage as an anti-poverty policy, which has been proven ineffective. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) new poverty-fighting agendas are revealed to be pre-existing policy programs.
While Republicans in Congress fret about deficits and “dependency on government,” 70,000 people are losing their lifeline every week. This isn’t an abstract debate about moral principles to them. It’s rent or mortgage payments. It’s dinners and shoes and gas for the car. It’s the phone bill they need to have paid so prospective employers can call them back. More than 1.3 million people are losing income they depend on because Republicans in Congress are so very concerned about whether we’re “bankrupting the country” and putting jobless people in moral peril with UI benefits.
Congressional Republicans have a special privilege: they get to decide that their abstract theories about the size and role of government outrank actual people’s actual needs. And they get to act on that privilege, to the detriment of thousands of their own constituents.
That’s a real economic consequence, to real people, and it’s happening because an increasingly unequal economy makes rich people’s policy preferences louder in Washington and working people’s needs get ignored.
Unemployed people can’t eat fables. Maybe someday we can invent a way convert gauzy speculation about merit and dependency into paychecks, but until then, congressional Republicans need to drop the act.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on twitter as @sethdmichaels.