GOP view of jobless fails economic and moral tests

Syndicated columnistJanuary 2, 2014 

WASHINGTON — To 1.3 million jobless Americans: The Republican Party wishes you a Very Unhappy New Year!

It would be one thing if there were a logical reason to cut off unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work the longest. But no such rationale exists. On both economic and moral grounds, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed should have been an automatic bipartisan vote in Congress.

It wasn't. Nothing is automatic and bipartisan anymore, not with today's radicalized GOP. In this case, a sensible and humane policy option is hostage to bruised Republican egos and the ideological myth of "makers" versus "takers."

Benefits were allowed to expire last week for 1.3 million people who have been unemployed more than six months. Since they have been scraping by on unemployment checks for so long, their financial situations are already precarious, if not dire.

Extending unemployment benefits is normally done in a recession; Republicans correctly point out that we are in a recovery. But there was nothing normal about the Great Recession, and there is nothing normal about the Not-So-Great Recovery. Job growth is improving but sluggish, with unemployment hovering at 7 percent, not counting millions who have given up looking.

An extension should have been part of the budget deal. Democrats offered an amendment extending benefits for three months, and they identified savings elsewhere to pay for it. But House Speaker John Boehner refused to allow a vote.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that extending long-term unemployment for a year would cost about $25 billion, which would add to the deficit. But the measure would boost economic growth by 0.2 percent and create 200,000 jobs. Given that interest rates are at historical lows and that the imperative now is to create growth and jobs, refusing to extend the benefits is counterproductive and cruel.

Sadly, cruelty is the point.

The Republican far right perceived the budget deal as a defeat, even though it caps spending for social programs at levels that many Democrats consider appallingly low, because it does not slash Medicare and Social Security. For some in the GOP, accepting an unemployment extension favored by Democrats would have been too much.

For some other Republicans, unemployment isn't about spending, growth, deficits or politics. They see it as a moral issue. To them, extended benefits coddle the unemployed, encouraging them to loll around, presumably eating bonbons, rather than pound the streets for any crumbs of work.

This view is consistent with the philosophy that Mitt Romney privately espoused during his failed presidential campaign. It sees a growing number of Americans as parasitic "takers" who luxuriate in their dependence on government benefits; 47 percent was the figure Romney came up with. The "makers" who create the nation's wealth are not really helping the down-and-out by giving them financial support to make it through tough times, this philosophy holds. Much better medicine would be a kick in the pants.

I wonder if these Ayn Rand ideologues have ever actually met a breadwinner who has gone without a job for more than six months. I wonder if they know that some jobless men and women don't have well-to-do parents or a trust fund to fall back on. I wonder if they understand that unemployment benefits don't even cover basic expenses, much less bonbons.

The Republican establishment doesn't want this to be a campaign issue for Democrats, so it's quite likely that the benefits will be extended eventually. Until then, more than a million households are being made to suffer privation and anxiety, for no good reason at all. Thanks for nothing, GOP.

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