Democrats Must Not Abandon The Unemployed And The Hungry

Terrance Heath

Despite the excitement over the latest jobs report, it’s too soon to  celebrate. Millions of Americans are still struggling with long-term unemployment and hunger. Now is not the time to abandon them.

Democrats, in particular, shouldn’t be fooled. A good-but-not-great jobs report is no reason to let emergency unemployment benefits expire, or allow further cuts to food stamp benefits.

According to the November jobs report, the economy added 203,000 jobs, and unemployment dropped to 7.0 percent — the lowest it’s been in five years. But, as Bob Borosage wrote, we’re still nowhere near pre-recession job levels.  At the current rate of job growth, about 194,000 jobs per month, it will take another five years before America returns to our 4.7 percent jobless rate before the Great Recession began in December 2007. Long-term unemployment is at its highest rate since World War II.

So why is the extension of unemployment benefits not in the budget agreement being hammered out between Democrats and Republicans in Congress? On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats wouldn’t accept any budget deal that doesn’t extend unemployment benefits for another year. Now, it’s being reported Democrats and Republicans are close to a deal that does not include extending unemployment benefits.

As Jared Bernstein explains, a half-way decent jobs report doesn’t mean we don’t need to extend unemployment benefits.

Here’s the argument: the Senate and the House are working on a budget deal, and key Democrats, including the White House, are arguing that the deal should include another extension of UI benefits. Opponents say, “been there, done that.” We’ve already extended benefits a bunch of times and now that the job market’s getting stronger, we don’t need to do so again.

Not so. As I wrote this AM, “Policy makers must not conflate an improving labor market with a healed job market. Until job opportunities are more robust, the extension is needed, both for the sake of the long-term jobless and the macro-economy (since UI has a large multiplier).”

We may be creating jobs, but we’re not creating nearly enough jobs. And many of the jobs created are the same kind of McJobs that thousands of workers walked away from on Thursday, to demand better wages. Nearly a quarter of the new jobs in this months jobs report were in the retail and restaurant sectors, that don’t pay livable wages, and don’t come with benefits.

That’s why it’s also dismaying to hear that, on the same day that President Obama spoke about poverty and inequality, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow was busy cutting a deal with House Republicans to cut another $8 to $9 billion from food stamps. It’s a sad confirmation of what I predicted earlier: that Senate and House negotiations on the farm bill would probably yield a “compromise” that cut food stamps by less than the $40 billion cut by the House bill, and far more than the $4 billion cut by the Senate.

Though this “compromise” only gives House Republicans about one fifth of the cuts they wanted, it can still be read as a Republican victory. House Republicans used one of the oldest negotiating tactics in the book: Start out asking for far more than you know you’re going to get, and you’ll get more than you might have otherwise. It appears that Democrats fell for it.

Even the most delusional tea partier understood that Democrats were never going to agree to $40 billion in cuts to food stamps. But it looks like asking for that much got Senate Democrats to more than double the cuts in the Senate bill. Not only that, but House Republicans managed to get a Democratic-controlled Senate to propose cuts to food stamp for the first time in history.

“That was the first time in history that a Democratic-controlled Senate had even proposed cutting the SNAP program,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The willingness of some Senate Democrats to double new cuts to the program…is unthinkable.”

What’s even more galling is that this “compromise,” will leave food stamp recipients with even less money for food. Under the Senate bill, 4 billion in cuts would have caused about 500,000 Americans to lose $90 per month in benefits — one week’s worth of meals. This “compromise” will take even more food assistance away from the neediest Americans, while re-opening loopholes for multi-million dollar farming entities.

On Wednesday, the president spoke of the need for food assistance programs on a very personal level.

The president recognized in a very personal way the need for a SNAP program that protects families from severe hardship.

“When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry,” he said.

This “compromise” turns its backs on families facing the same hardships today.

We’re in a hole, and millions Americans — 20 million under employed, 11.3 million unemployed, 4.7 million long-term unemployed, and 47 million struggling with hunger — will fall further into the abyss.

Democrats are fooling themselves if they think compromises like these will somehow make it possible to revisit unemployment benefits and food assistance after the latest manufactured budget “crisis” has passed. Unlike Democrats, Republicans are not in the habit of ceding ground after victories like these, which essentially reaffirm that conservative positions that unemployment benefits must not be extended and food stamps must be cut.

“Bipartisanship” borrowed at the expense of the jobless, the poor, and the hungry will not be bought back so easily when Democrats go back to the bargaining table.

Comments