Why won't Congress reauthorize unemployment benefits for people who've been out of work for longer than six months?
For the past several weeks, Republicans in the Senate, with an assist from Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, filibustered bills to reauthorize the benefits due to concerns about adding the cost of the aid to the deficit. Beneath the deficit concerns, however, there's something else: the suspicion that the long-term unemployed are a bunch of lazy drug addicts.
It's not an opinion openly shared by most members of Congress, but a handful of senators and representatives from both parties have said this year that they suspect extended unemployment benefits actually discourage people from looking for work.
It started in March with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who said unemployment insurance "doesn't create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."
In May, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said extended benefits undermine the economic recovery because they "basically keep an economy that encourages people to, rather than go out and look for work, to stay on unemployment." And Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), after pushing party leaders to trim a domestic aid bill, said that in light of four months of job growth, "At some point you have to take a step back and look at the relative value of unemployment benefits versus people looking for jobs."
Altmire said business owners in his district (he declined to say which ones) complained of hiring trouble because potential workers would rather stay on the dole. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the same thing when she neatly juxtaposed suspicion of the unemployed and deficit worries in a June comment off the Senate floor. Deficit hawks want the extended benefits, which until 36 days ago gave the unemployed an unprecedented 99 weeks of checks in some states, to be "paid for" instead of passed as emergency spending and adding the cost to the deficit.
Feinstein said that while extended benefits during times of recession have never been paid for, "unemployment insurance has never carried the heavy weight that it does right now, the cost that it does right now, so people are concerned. And there isn't a lot of documentation on this. Last night for the first time I had somebody from a company tell me they've offered jobs to individuals and they said well, I want to not come back to work until my unemployment insurance runs out. So we need to start looking at these things. And we need to start paying for it."
(Feinstein's office later clarified that the senator "believes that unemployed Americans want jobs, not unemployment checks." Feinstein voted in favor of every attempt to reauthorize the benefits over the past month.)
At a June hearing on long-term unemployment, Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) also trotted out the hard-luck business owner. "Even when businesses are willing to hire, nearly two years of unemployment benefits are too much of an allure for some," said Linder, citing an anecdotal Detroit News story about landscapers having trouble hiring unemployed folks who would rather stay on the dole. "The evidence is mounting that so-called stimulus policies rammed through Congress are doing more harm than good."
To some on Capitol Hill, the jobless aren't just lazy -- they're on drugs, too. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed drug testing the unemployed: "A lot of people are saying, 'Hey, it's about time. Why do we keep giving money to people who are going to go use it on drugs instead of their families?'"
It's all perfectly offensive to the unemployed. To be eligible for benefits, a person is required to have been laid off for economic reasons -- in other words, through no fault of his or her own. The benefits typically total 74 percent of the official poverty threshold for a family of four. There are five jobseekers for every job available, and a full third of the nearly 15 million unemployed don't receive benefits in the first place.
Patricia Rosen of Huntsville, Ala. called the accusations of laziness "insane."
"I highly resent the comments," said Rosen, who told HuffPost she lost her job a year ago and stopped receiving benefits on June 4 because of the congressional lapse. "I've always been looking for a job... They do not want to hire you if you're unemployed."
For every anecdote about business owners having hiring trouble, there are others about business flatly refusing to hire the jobless. HuffPost has found online job ads that say "NO UNEMPLOYED CANDIDATES WILL BE CONSIDERED AT ALL."
"I don't think the jobs are out there. I look for jobs constantly. They just aren't there," said James Edlund of Minneapolis, Minn., a technical writer who said he's been out of work since August 2008 and whose benefits were cut off in June. "We can bail out banks and insurance and the auto industry, and then the Senate goes and spends the 4th of July on their boats with their fine bourbon and cigars. There seems to be a huge disconnect between our Congress and what's going on out in the street."
Kim Metts of Wilmington, N.C. said she relied on unemployment benefits (and a rapidly depleting savings account) to feed her teenage son for a year before she finally found a job earning $11 per hour. The benefits weren't enough to save her house from foreclosure.
"It makes me sick that Congress finds it necessary to keep pouring more and more taxpayer money into these banks, mortgage companies and nothing into the pockets of those who are in reality are paying the bills," wrote Metts in an email. "If I hear one more stupid congressman point the finger at the American public and accuse those who can't find work of being lazy drug addicts, I think I'll do more than scream. You better believe I'll be counted at the polls come November."
In April, the San Francisco Federal Reserve published a report finding that "extended unemployment insurance benefits have not been important factors in the increase in the duration of unemployment or in the elevated unemployment rate."
On Friday, Democrats on the congressional Joint Economic Committee released a report (PDF) blasting the notion that extended benefits discourages jobseeking. "Playing deficit politics with unemployment benefits is simply wrong," said JEC Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in a statement to HuffPost. "As this JEC report clearly shows, unemployment benefits do not deter unemployed workers from vigorously looking for a new job, especially in this economy. Additionally, the dollars they receive are plowed right back into the economy."
(Several studies from the 1980s and '90s, as the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday, found that extended benefits contributed to longer periods of unemployment during recessions less severe than the current one.)
"How anyone can demonize people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and who are struggling to simply keep afloat in this job market is beyond me," said Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project. "These remarks add nothing to the debate about how to handle a very serious crisis, and reveal the speakers as people who have no compassion, little basic human decency, and absolutely no understanding of the present job market in this country. They should be ashamed of themselves."