Stop pun­ish­ing the job­less

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

There was a time when ev­ery­one took it for granted that un­em­ploy­ment in­surance, which nor­mally ter­mi­nates af­ter 26 weeks, would be ex­tended in times of per­sis­tent job­less­ness. It­was, most peo­ple agreed, the de­cent thing to do.

But that was then. To­day, Amer­i­can work­ers face the worst job mar­ket since the Great De­pres­sion, with five job seekers for ev­ery job open­ing, with the av­er­age spell of un­em­ploy­ment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Se­nate went home for the hol­i­day­week­end­with­out ex­tend­ing ben­e­fits. How was that pos­si­ble?

The an­swer is that we’re fac­ing a coali­tion of the heart­less, the clue­less and the con­fused. Noth­ing can be done about the first group, and prob­a­bly not much about the sec­ond. But maybe it’s pos­si­ble to clear up some of the con­fu­sion.

By the heart­less, I mean Repub­li­cans who have­made the cyn­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion that block­ing any­thing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama tries to do — in­clud­ing, or per­haps es­pe­cially, any­thing that­might al­le­vi­ate the nation’s eco­nomic pain — im­proves their chances in themidter­m­elec­tions. Don’t pre­tend to be shocked: You know they’re out there, and make up a large share of the GOP cau­cus.

By the clue­less I mean peo­ple like Shar­ron An­gle, the Repub­li­can can­di­date for sen­a­tor fromNe­vada, who has re­peat­edly in­sisted that the un­em­ployed de­lib­er­ately choose to stay job­less, so that they can keep col­lect­ing ben­e­fits. Asam­ple re­mark: “You can­make­more­money on un­em­ploy­ment than you can go­ing down and get­ting one of those jobs that is an hon­est job, but it doesn’t pay as­much. We’ve put in so much en­ti­tle­ment into our govern­ment thatwe re­ally have spoiled our cit­i­zenry.”

Now, I don’t have the im­pres­sion that un­em­ployed Amer­i­cans are spoiled; des­per­ate seems more like it. One doubts, how­ever, that any amount of ev­i­dence could change An­gle’s view of the world — and there are, un­for­tu­nately, a lot of peo­ple in our po­lit­i­cal class just like her.

But there are also, one hopes, at least a few po­lit­i­cal play­er­swho are hon­est­lymis­in­formed about what un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits do— who be­lieve, for ex­am­ple, that Sen. JonKyl, R-Ariz., was mak­ing sense when he de­clared that ex­tend­ing ben­e­fits would make un­em­ploy­ment worse, be­cause “con­tin­u­ing to pay peo­ple un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion is a dis­in­cen­tive for themto seek newwork.” So let’s talk aboutwhy that be­lief is dead wrong.

Do un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits re­duce the in­cen­tive to seek­work? Yes: Work­ers re­ceiv­ing un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits aren’t quite as des­per­ate as work­ers with­out ben­e­fits, and are likely to be slight­ly­more choosy about ac­cept­ing newjobs. The op­er­a­tive word here is “slightly.” Re­cent eco­nomic re­search sug­gests that the ef­fect of un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits on worker be­hav­ior is­much weaker than was pre­vi­ously be­lieved. Still, it’s a real ef­fect when the econ­omy is do­ing well.

But it’s an ef­fect that is com­pletely ir­rel­e­vant to our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. When the econ­omy is boom­ing, and lack of suf­fi­cien­twill­ing­work­ers is lim­it­ing growth, gen­er­ous un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits may keep em­ploy­ment lower than it would have been oth­er­wise. But as you may have no­ticed, right now the econ­omy isn’t boom­ing — again, there are five un­em­ployed work­ers for ev­ery job open­ing. Cut­ting off ben­e­fits to the un­em­ployed will make them even more des­per­ate for­work— but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

Wait: There’s more. One main rea­son there aren’t enough jobs right now­isweak con­sumer de­mand. Help­ing the un­em­ployed, by putting money in the pock­ets of peo­ple­who badly need it, helps sup­port con­sumer spend­ing. That’s why the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice rates aid to the un­em­ployed as a highly cost-ef­fec­tive form of eco­nomic stim­u­lus. And un­like, say, large in­fra­struc­ture projects, aid to the un­em­ployed cre­ates jobs quickly — while al­low­ing that aid to lapse, which is what is hap­pen­ing right now, is a recipe for even weaker job growth, not in the dis­tant fu­ture, but over the next few months.

But­won’t ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits worsen the bud­get deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and oth­ers have been ar­gu­ing at length, penny-pinch­ing in the midst of a se­verely de­pressed econ­omy is no way to deal with our long-run­bud­get prob­lems. And penny-pinch­ing at the ex­pense of the un­em­ployed is cruel as well as mis­guided.

So, is there any chance these ar­gu­mentswill get through? Not, I fear, to Repub­li­cans: “It is dif­fi­cult to get aman to un­der­stand some­thing,” said Up­ton Sin­clair, “when his salary” — or, in this case, his hope of re­tak­ing Congress — “de­pends upon his not un­der­stand­ing it.” But there are also cen­tristDemocratswho have bought into the ar­gu­ments against help­ing the un­em­ployed. It’s up to themto step back, re­al­ize that they have been misled— and do the right thing by pass­ing ex­tended ben­e­fits.

Eric Risberg

Flora Guan, left, and Jes­sica Yang, re­cent grad­u­ates of San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity, filled out forms at a ca­reer fair in San Fran­cisco on June 28.

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