Tuesday’s vote in the Senate to allow a bill to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans to move forward without threat of a filibuster was a promising first step. Unfortunately, the measure still faces serious opposition in the House even if it passes in the Senate.
As of Dec. 28, federal benefits expired for the nation’s long-term unemployed, many of them in desperate financial straits. While some Democrats had supported including an extension of benefits in the recent congressional budget compromise, party leaders decided to try to restore the benefits later in separate legislation.
On Tuesday, with the support of six Republicans, senators removed one procedural obstacle to a three-month extension of benefits. But the bill still faces considerable hurdles.
Many Republicans in both houses initially had opposed any extension at all. But some now say that they could support a bill to extend benefits if the $6.5 billion cost were paid for by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
That is a change in attitude, perhaps a significant one. For example, Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ind., initially said that unemployment benefits discouraged people from seeking jobs and that benefits did a “disservice” to the unemployed.
He now says, however, that he might support an extension if it is paid for.
The change of heart on Paul’s part and on the part of other Republicans might have come, in part, from polls showing that a majority of voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, favor extending jobless benefits at least temporarily. Lawmakers also undoubtedly got an earful from jobless constituents when they were at home for the holidays.
But the decision to extend benefits shouldn’t be that tortured. The consensus of many economists is that supporting the long-time unemployed while they seek new jobs is both compassionate and good economic policy.
Unemployment insurance is not the big gift from the government that some critics try to portray it as. It usually amounts to between 40 and 50 percent of what recipients had been making when they lost their jobs, averaging about $256 a week. And if Congress does nothing to restore benefits, hundreds of thousands more will feel the pinch as state benefits also expire in the days ahead.
While critics such as Paul say that benefits stifle the motivation of the unemployed to find jobs, it is difficult to imagine people – especially family providers – not preferring work for a decent wage over continued jobless benefits. As President Barack Obama remarked in a speech this week, “These aren’t folks who are just sitting back, waiting for things to happen. They’re out there actively looking for work. They desperately want work.”
Unfortunately, the number of unemployed people looking for jobs significantly outnumber the number of jobs that are available. And many of the jobs that do come open are menial labor or work in the service sector, such as fast-food franchises.
So, what is needed not only is help for the long-term unemployed but also more jobs. And, according to many economists, one way to create more jobs is to ensure that the unemployed have money to spend.
The billions spent by jobless people to support themselves and their families are circulated in communities across the nation. And that money spurs commerce and helps create new jobs.
Cutting benefits not only deprives the unemployed of money they desperately need to get by but also cuts money going to merchants and boosting the economy. It’s both cruel and dumb at the same time.
But if critics insist on paying for an extension of benefits, that leaves room for compromise. Cutting unwarranted agriculture subsidies might be a good place to start.
In any case, the economy is beginning to pick up, and more jobs are likely to become available in the months ahead. Congress needs to ensure that the unemployed are able to meet basic needs and feed their families until they can find a job.