Robert Pear’s story in the New York Times yesterday about the impasse in Congress over renewing the federal emergency unemployment benefits program was a mixed bag. It did a good job of demonstrating how differently Republicans and Democrats view the unemployed, making clear that some Republican politicians have decided to scapegoat the unemployed and blame the victims rather than those truly responsible for our economic woes. But Pear also inadvertently contributed to misunderstandings and misinformation about the unemployment insurance (UI) program and failed to point out essential facts about its operations and justification.
Pear reports that 3 million people could lose their unemployment benefits in the near future if Congress fails to renew federal assistance. That’s true, and it would not only be painful to disastrous to these individuals and their families, it would be bad for the economy, as everyone from Goldman Sachs to EPI recognizes.
Well almost everyone. As Pear reports, House and Senate Republicans think a lot of people ought to lose their benefits because they’ve received them too long and are essentially just taking a long vacation. He quotes Michigan Republican Dave Camp, who heads the tax-writing committee that’s in charge of UI, and who wants to chop 40 weeks off the maximum benefit duration: “This reflects a more normal level of benefits typically available after recessions.” Rep. Camp somehow has forgotten that there’s little normal about the current economy, which with an 8.6 percent unemployment rate is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn in 80 years.
But Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) expresses what may be on the minds of many of the Republicans who want to kill or reduce the emergency UI benefits: “I don’t see why you have to go more than 59 weeks. In fact, we need some incentives for people to get back to work. A lot of these people don’t want to work unless they get really high-paying jobs, and they’re not going to get them ever. So they just stay home and watch television. I don’t mean to malign people, but far too many are doing that.”
Pear could do his readers and Sen. Hatch a service by letting them know that workers receiving the last 20 weeks of benefits possible – Extended Benefits – have no choice about what job they’ll take. The law says their benefits are cut off if they refuse even a minimum wage job, so they aren’t holding out for “really high-paying jobs.”
This would also have been a good moment for the article to have mentioned that there are more than four unemployed workers for every available job. The experience of most unemployed workers is that they call and write and email employers and never hear a word back. Indeed, the evidence suggests that workers who receive UI do more job search than those who never receive benefits. They have every incentive to look hard because: a) their benefits are cut off if they don’t look, b) the benefits are so low (averaging less than $300) they barely amount to the minimum wage for a 40-hour work week, and c) most people are embarrassed or even ashamed to be jobless, even though the fault lies with the economy and not them.
More damaging, Pear leaves an impression that there are no job search requirements for UI at all. He describes the Republican position as imposing job search requirements for the first time: “House Republicans said they wanted a full-year extension, with additional requirements to prevent abuse of the program. They would require most recipients of jobless benefits to search for work…” Job search is not “an additional requirement.” Every UI recipient already is required to look for and accept suitable employment, until they begin receiving Extended Benefits, at which point they are required to accept even minimum wage work for which they are totally overqualified.
The Republicans want to set new and punitive barriers to benefits in front of the unemployed, including drug tests and high school GED requirements, perhaps to paint a picture of them as undeserving. There’s no good reason to subject people to humiliation who have worked hard and earned insurance benefits. They are not the reason employers are sitting on record profits and refusing to hire. They did not engineer the $8 trillion housing bubble that crashed the economy.
They want to work. There are no jobs. They have been punished enough.