Drop Dead Conservatism Kicking the Jobless When Theyre Down

Terrance Heath

A couple of years ago I started writing about something I called "Drop Dead Conservatism," and attempted to define it:

High on delusion, denial, and derision, it’s the face of a conservatism unequipped to recognize — let alone meet — the challenges America and the world now face, and blind to the possibility drowning itself in irrelevance. It’s the face of a conservatism that, facing the failure of its ideology, has more anger than answers.

That was just after the 2008 election, when I hoped that perhaps we were rid of that kind of conservatism.

I mean the kind of conservatism that would "accept a Great Depression" and the suffering it would inflict on Americans "for the sake of the altar of the free market". I mean the kind of conservatism that would let the U.S. auto industry fail, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with it, rather than saving those jobs and the other jobs that rely on the auto industry. I mean the kind of conservatism that would punish Senators who supported the stimulus (which, however you slice it, created more jobs than the Bush tax cuts did in eight years), or the kind of conservatism that would furlough 25,000 workers with one hand and turn down stimulus funds with the other, while offering prayer and little else to Americans dealing with long-term unemployment and economic desperation. I mean the kind of conservatism that calls Wall Street "a holy place," and calls unemployed Americans "spoiled," "lazy" drug users — but is ashamed to call them Americans.

That was two years ago. Now, I’m certain that Drop Dead Conservatism will be around for a while, and we’ll be hearing a lot more from it in  the next couple of years. Just yesterday, conservatives in the House told unemployed Americans to "Drop dead," by blocking another unemployment benefits extension.

Republicans have sought to block the extension of benefits before, arguing that the spending should be offset by savings elsewhere.

Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic majority leader, said his party will continue to push for the extension when lawmakers return on November 29. Without an extension, benefits will expire on November 30.

“Today, Republicans blocked an extension of unemployment insurance for thousands of families who have lost jobs through no fault of their own,’ Mr. Hoyer said. “As a result, they can expect their insurance to begin to run out just after Thanksgiving weekend. Republicans’ opposition to this bill was bad for families across their own districts, and worse for our economy as a whole.”

A spokesman for the incoming House speaker, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, accused Democrats of manipulating an important issue.

And just in time for the holidays. I haven’t seen that kind of conservatism in action since 2005, when Congress worked almost right up to the holidays to cut taxes for the rich and cut food stamps and other programs that provide assistance to the poor.

Today, fifteen million Americans are unemployed, and of those 6.2 million have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more — making them long-term unemployed. Since 2007, 4.7 million have dropped out of the labor force, because they’ve just given up hope. Forty-four million Americans are living in povertya record increase. Of those living in poverty, 15.5 million are children who may face lives severely impacted by persistent poverty.

Meanwhile, unemployment benefits have kept at least 3.3 million out of poverty. (H/t Steve Benen)

The headline story in today’s Census Bureau report is the large jump in the poverty rate in 2009. But an exclusive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of the new survey data shows that unemployment insurance benefits — which expanded substantially last year in response to the increased need — kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009.

In other words, there were 43.6 million Americans whose families were below the poverty line in 2009, according to the official poverty statistics, which count jobless benefits as part of families’ income. But if you don’t count jobless benefits, 46.9 million Americans were poor.

Unemployment insurance benefits usually keep more people out of poverty during recessions than during expansions, partly because recessions swell the ranks of jobless workers seeking help and because the government typically offers extra weeks of help in a recession. But they had a much bigger poverty-fighting impact in this recession than in the previous three recessions…

    If Congress doesn’t act, 2 million unemployed will lose unemployment benefits that may stand between them and poverty.

    Make no mistake about it. The GOP is saying "Drop dead," to millions of unemployed Americans. This is a conservatism that rejects not only the "compassionate conservatism" of the Bush administration (oxymoronic as the concept was during the Bush era), but rebels "against even the idea that compassion is a legitimate object of public policy." (Not to mention empathy.) This is a conservatism without empathy or compassion, that doesn’t pretend to have either, and is proud of it

    The numbers above don’t give you a real sense of who conservatives are telling to "Drop dead." For that you need to hear their stories.

    Today’s Washington post tells the story of Chrissanda Walker, one of the 2 million Americans the GOP just told to "Drop dead."

    IN FORT MYERS, FLA. Chrissanda Walker’s bourbon-glazed chicken is just out of the oven. The bread pudding is finished. The collard greens worry her, though; she doesn’t want to overcook them. Walker looks at the clock. It’s 10 a.m. She’s been on her feet since 6.

    Walker used to make $100,000 a year as a nursing home executive until she lost her job a year and a half ago. Unable to find a new one, she shed her business suits and high heels and put on an apron and soft-soled shoes. This year, she and her daughter are living on $11,000: her unemployment benefits plus whatever she can earn selling home-cooked dinners for $10 apiece.

    Her American Dream has taken a punch to the gut. "I never thought I’d be in a situation like this," she says, smoke from the cooking swirling about her. "My friends say to me: ‘Listen to the Lord, Chris.’ I say, ‘No, I have to have a paycheck.’ "

    …Now Walker, 50, feels a part of her future has been snatched. Gone like an old breeze. This year, the last dime of her savings vanished. Her health insurance is a thing of the past.

    She has had some kind of job – from babysitter to server at a fast-food restaurant – since she was 12 years old. She has always believed in the work ethic. She retains the ethic, but the work is gone.

    "My parents had always worked," she says. "They always provided for us. It was never a ‘no.’ It’s what they always instilled in us: Do your best, strive for excellence. That’s why all of this is so hard for me," she says, her words struggling to emerge through the sobs.

    Sabrina Goodwin Monday, a college classmate, has held some long, late-night phone conversations with Walker. "It’s hard for her to believe in the American Dream anymore because there’s nothing dreamy about her life anymore."

    Walker’s is just one of millions of Americans who have worked all their lives, and still want to work, but find there is no work. Estimates earlier this year showed that there were about five job seekers for every job. Add "involuntary part-time" workers to the mix and the job seekers to jobs ratio jumps to 8.3-to-1

    Finding no jobs available, Walker turned to her work ethic — one passed on to her from parents (including her 70-year-old father who’s gone back to work as a truck driver) who worked to provide for and educate Walker and three siblings — to figure out what she could do to earn something while living on unemployment benefits that amount to 11% of her former salary, to become one of the new entrepreneurs of this unemployment crisis — without retirement savings, without health insurance, etc.

    Another surprise is the age of these new entrepreneurs. According to the report, most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20’s. It’s the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy.

    And if you thought minorities had been hit particularly hard by this awful recession, think again. According to the report, entrepreneurship increased more among African-Americans than among whites.

    At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?

    In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans have had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for "entrepreneur" is "self-employed."

    …Yes, a growing number of Americans went out on their own before the recession, but clearly their numbers have vastly increased. While some are happy about their new status, most are worse off than they were before. It’s one thing to be a contingent worker in good times and when you’re young; quite another in bad times when you’re middle-aged.

    Based on the article, there is nothing about Walker that says "spoiled." There is certainly nothing about her that says "lazy" or "drug addicted. She did what millions of Americans were told they were supposed to do, she worked hard, got her education, and worked up to becoming the most financially successful of her siblings. (All of whom are hard workers themselves.) In March of 2009, she lost her job through no apparent fault of her own.

    In roughly the same 20 months since Democrats took the White House and Congress, Walker has found herself "down to nothing," despite her willingness to work, despite her taking the incentive to create work for herself when none was available. Walker, it appears was more than willing to work to help herself, but when she is in real need of help none is available.

    At 50 years old, Walker is likely among those Americans who will never get back to where they were without help, having lost careers that they worked their entire lives to build. Most won’t be able to rebuild if only because they have no time. Their children, will likely face a permanently lowered standard of living, due to the loss of opportunities that goes with a lowered standard of living. They will inherit and pass on to their children narrowed horizons and a poverty of possibilities.

    On December 4th, what little help Walker gets through unemployment benefits will expire, leaving her with just whatever she can earn through cooking meals. It’s unlikely that, without those benefits, she will even have a place to do that much.

    What has helped Walker hold, just barely, on will soon be gone. She is running out out of rope, and there is no net. Walker’s is just one story. There are millions more like hers. By any measure, a majority of Americans cite job creation as a top priority.Yet Republicans have offered no substantive jobs plans, beyond repeating the failure of the past and hoping for success this time.

    Republicans demand that Walker and millions like her get no help until they’re "paid for" with cuts elsewhere, but their plan to extend tax cuts for the rich would add $3.9 trillion to the deficit.  They have declared there will be "no compromise" on extending tax cuts for the wealthy. yet they still can’t say how they will pay for these tax cuts  — tax cuts that won’t grow the economy, because the rich don’t spent tax cuts, so the money doesn’t go back into the economy.

    Republicans were even willing to hold Chrissanda Walker and 2 million unemployed Americans hostage, for the sake of cutting taxes for the wealthy.

    If this isn’t class warfare, I don’t know what is.

    A senior Republican in the House of Representatives said he could back extending jobless benefits, favored by Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in exchange for an extension of all Bush-era tax cuts, including for the wealthiest groups.

    "What we’re going to do is sit down and talk with Mrs. Pelosi," Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican in leadership, told Reuters as he left a meeting of House Republicans. "I see nothing wrong with her winning as long as the American people do."

    In other words, give the rich a tax break, or the two million people who will lose their benefits by the end of December are out on the street. Oh, and happy holidays.

    Mr. Boehner is right. There is a political party "manipulating an important issue" for political points. It is his own party.

    Republicans are trying to score political points, while playing with the lives and hopes of millions of Americans like Chrissandra Walker, and ignoring what Americans have repeatedly said they want.

    They may pay a political price for it someday, if Americans someday take a lesson from Europe and finally direct their anger at the right targets.

    But until then, Americans like Chrissandra Walker will continue to pay a far bigger and more painful price, and get nothing for it but more economic pain.

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