The cheers that GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain got from the GOP faithful at the Las Vegas GOP presidential debate for his full throated defense of Wall Street and his trash of the unemployed for being unemployed was no surprise. The mantra of the GOP crowd since the Ronald Reagan era has been that Democratic rule equals big government equals big spending equals stifling private enterprise job creation. This supposedly equals millions of unemployed whose job skills, initiative, and willingness to find work are sharply eroded. The conclusion is that if you're unemployed, and poverty stricken don't blame business, blame failed Democratic government policies, but most all blame yourself. It's textbook blame the victim bashing and the GOP does it best. Cain just sniffed the political tea leaves on that line and knew that it would strike a comfortable nerve with the party faithful.
But the painful truth is that the cheers that Cain got for his poor bashing are no aberration. Political and public references to poverty and the plight of the unemployed virtually disappeared from the nation's vocabulary by the end of the 1960s. Such talk flew squarely in the face of the embedded laissez-faire notion that if one lost a job, or never sought one, and remained on the unemployment rolls for prolonged periods of time, it wasn't because of any failing of the system, but because of their personal failings, sloth, or unwillingness to get the training, education and skills necessary to make themselves job or career ready. The notion that the unemployed are to blame for their plight became even more irresistible in the 1990s. This was a time of renewed job growth and economic expansion. The unemployment levels had sunk to low single digit numbers and jobs appeared to be plentiful for anyone who wanted one.
By the first year of the Bush administration in 2001, a decisive majority of Americans were more convinced than ever that poverty and unemployment were the fault of those that were poor and unemployed. In a national poll, that year conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University's Kennedy School, a majority of Americans repeatedly tossed out the terms "unmotivated," "lacked aspirations to get ahead," and "didn't work hard enough" to describe the downtrodden. A majority believed America was a place where with hard work and determination anyone could succeed. In other words, the loud message was that if you're poor and unemployed, don't blame society, and don't look to government to provide the tonic.
This line repeatedly cropped up again and again during the fight President Obama waged over opposition from Senate Republicans to extend unemployment benefits earlier this year. GOP opponents trotted out studies and cited the opinions of conservative economists that alleged that doling out unemployment checks for a lengthy period only made the unemployed hopelessly dependant on a government check, tarnished their job skills, and encouraged disinterest and indolence in getting back in the labor market. The same argument is ruthlessly cited again now that Democrats again propose to stretch out the time frame for unemployment benefits. GOP opponents of the unemployment benefits extension proposal in President Obama's jobs bill latched onto the quip from Alan B. Krueger, picked to head Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, that increasing unemployment benefits prolong unemployment. Even a significant number of those unemployed agree with that. In a Rutgers University survey in September, more than one in four respondents opposed renewing the current extended unemployment benefits.
The massive corporate layoffs, downsizing, restructuring, and the sharp plunge in public employment by local and state governments that have dumped tens of thousands of hard working, educated, and diligent workers onto the unemployment rolls through no fault of their own, don't count for much with conservatives. Nor does the Census Bureau report in September that says that unemployment benefits lifted more than three million people out of poverty in 2010 sway Cain and the GOP.
The widespread view that government should play a role in assisting the unemployed during times of economic crisis when the job market has shrunk or disappeared in many sectors will continue to be under assault. This suits major corporations and the financial industry to a tee at a time when they've racked up record profits, a record hoarding of cash, and are scrooge like in spending on job creation and making loans to small and medium sized businesses to jumpstart production and hiring. It lets them off the hook for their abominable economic failures and leaves the unemployed twisting and dangling on it. The applause that Cain got from his cheerleaders and the deeply embedded misguided notion from millions of Americans of why the unemployed are unemployed sadly isn't likely to change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
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