Congress, Fight Harder For The Unemployed

Isaiah J. Poole

If the members of Congress who are spending time in their states and districts during the July 4 recess only get one message, it must be this one: Fight for the unemployed when you return to Washington. We mean, really fight, with serious votes on bills that match the seriousness of the unemployment crisis.

Enough with the kind of legislative appeasement that we’ve seen in the past few weeks, where jobs legislation that starts out at best barely adequate gets watered down in ultimately fruitless efforts to win a right wing that preaches that you’re unemployed because you’re “spoiled” or lazy or no better than a “stray animal.”

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Force votes on bills that would continue to stimulate the economy and put Americans back to work—even when they are destined to fail. Those failures will let us know who really gets the crisis we’re in, and who has the political will to embrace the solutions, and who is standing in the way.

Today’s jobs report showed that in June the economy produced only 83,000 private sector jobs. One-fourth of those jobs are temporary. Since the beginning of the year, the economy has produced 577,000 private sector jobs. The number of workers who have been unemployed more than 27 weeks remains at 6.8 million, and the number of part-time workers who actually would take fulltime jobs if they were available are 8.6 million.

The bottom line is that we are way behind the more than 400,000 jobs a month the economy should be creating over the next two years in order to repair the damage done by the Wall Street implosion and economic recession.

I’ve been reading some of the experiences of unemployed people being collected by the National Employment Law Project. They are stories of people who have mailed hundreds of resumes and have nothing to show for it. Millions of people right now are at the very end of their rope—or have already lost their grip.

I received this email yesterday via NELP from a man in Cedar Hill, Texas:

I am a highly skilled and experienced project coordinator who was making $20/hour when I got laid off last August. I have always been able to find a job quickly in the past, sometimes going through temporary agencies. Now I can’t even get a temp job for $10/hour. I have resumes customized to match different types of positions, and have easily applied for over 400 positions since I got laid off. I’ve had 7 interviews and no offers.
I received my last check under Tier I extended benefits on June 16. I am fortunate in that I rent my house from mother, so I won’t be evicted immediately, but the electricity, phone, and water will probably all be shut off by the second week of July. I’m trying to be positive and think of it like camping, but no A/C in Dallas in July isn’t very fun, and I have asthma, so I probably won’t last long here.  

Extended unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work more than 26 weeks ended the first week of June, and since then about 1.7 million of the nearly 7 million people who have been receiving benefits have been cut off. By the time Congress gets back into session the week of July 11, that number is expected to exceed 2.1 million.
Conservatives in the Senate have said that they would vote to restore those benefits if they were “paid for” with spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, one of their favorite targets happening to be yet-to-be-spent stimulus dollars. But not only is such a demand economically stupid in the middle of a recession, it is also unprecedented at a time of high unemployment, as this chart from the National Employment Law Project and the Center for American Progress shows.

But making sure that unemployed people continue to have a lifeline while they await the economy’s recovery is the least that Congress should do.

There’s federal aid to states for Medicaid, children’s health care and other federally mandated health programs that’s been obstructed in the Senate. Conservatives in the Senate last month would not allow a bill with $55 billion in aid to come to the floor for an up-or-down majority vote, and they blocked a pared-down bill as well. Without that aid, budget cuts states are making now to balance their budgets to compensate for the lack of aid are expected to lead to the loss of 900,000 jobs, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. House and Senate versions of the Local Jobs for America Act are currently awaiting action in both the House and the Senate. That legislation would provide funding to state and local governments to enable them to maintain a range of vital services, including services provided by nonprofit and community organizations.

But congressional conservatives could not even bring themselves to support funding to prevent teacher layoffs—even as they rail about the country their children will inherit.

E.J. Dionne’s column on Thursday bore a headline that asked, “Have Obama and the Democrats forgotten how to fight?” It begins with a Politico article about complaints that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is being too “aggressive” in pursuing climate change legislation.

So there you have it: Once criticized for being too aloof and patrician, Kerry is now being assailed for daring to have passion for the cause of reducing the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere.

Note that none of this is about the legislative merits. Kerry is being criticized for caring too much about an issue and not thinking enough about an election — for being insufficiently opportunistic and unprincipled.

And Democrats wonder why the polls find an "enthusiasm gap" that suggests their supporters will sit around grumpily in November while Republicans flood the polling places.

It might help if voters saw President Obama and his party in Congress fighting for something going into these elections (including their record on health care and financial reform) rather than reacting, retrenching and retreating. Kerry’s attitude is not the problem. It’s part of the solution.

If hearing and reading the stories about the plight of the unemployed is not enough to stop the retrenching and retreating, our friends in Congress should at least read the polls.

An impressive recent series of polls show that a majority of the American public agree with progressives, not conservatives, that stimulating the economy to produce jobs is more important right now that cutting the federal budget. USA Today-Gallup in June showed that 60 percent of respondents would "approve additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy."  In May, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that asked respondents to rank their top priority for government action, 35 percent said “job creation and economic growth” while only 20 percent ranked “the deficit and government spending” as top priority. Even 47 percent of those those who participated in a Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll ranked “the economy and jobs” as the item that was “most important for the federal government to be working on right now.” Only 15 percent in that poll said the “deficit and spending.” Even Republicans ranked jobs as the top priority.

Today’s jobs report is one more note in what should be a battle cry for the White House and for congressional leadership. Our number one crisis is a jobs deficit. Nothing we do to address the budget deficit will matter as long as we continue to have chronic high unemployment, and as long as our politics are dominated by ideologues who have disdain for the victims of their failed policies.

We should not be surprised, after conservatives crippled the first stimulus response in 2009, that the private sector has yet to be jolted into a self-sustaining recovery. Given that, the answer today is not to retreat but to get it right. President Obama got it right when shortly after today’s jobs report he backed a series of infrastructure investments that would help put Americans back to work in the short run on projects that will bolster the economy in the long run. That kind of talk steers the political conversation in the right direction. That now has to be amplified and emboldened.

Let’s put “getting it right” to a vote. If it fails, so be it. If proposals that would put Americans back to work are whittled down to be almost ineffectual, then at least let it be clear who is responsible for diluting and contaminating the medicine that America’s economy needs to recover, so that they can be held responsible.

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