Let’s Get Back To Focusing On The Long-Term Unemployed – And Jobs

Isaiah J. Poole

The long-term unemployed got some renewed attention finally on Tuesday with the announcement that a Republican and a Democratic senator are teaming up on a revival of extended benefits for people who have not been able to find work after 26 weeks.

It’s about time, since more than 3 million jobseekers have been without a financial lifeline since emergency jobless benefits for the long-term jobless expired in late December, and Republicans in the House refused to bring to a vote a bill restarting the benefits that had been passed by the Senate.

But what the long-term unemployed really want and need is a job – and creating those jobs was the focus of a panel hosted by the congressional Full Employment Caucus, founded by long-time full employment crusader Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

What the panel made clear is that there are a range of things – both big and small – that we can and should push Congress and the White House to do to move us closer to a full employment economy. Some initiatives have true bipartisan support. Political polarization and gridlock is not an excuse to give up.

Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz helped frame the discussion early by saying the current level of long-term joblessness “is not due to something wrong with the workers. It’s due to six years of weak demand from employers.”

Jobseekers who have been out of work for more than six months comprise 2.2 percent of the total labor force, Shierholz said. That is triple the share of the labor force that this group occupied prior to the 2008 recession. But that percentage is “what you would expect in the context of a weak labor market,” she said.

In other words, the tendency of some conservatives to say that the long-term jobless are simply lazy or aren’t taking the right steps to make themselves more marketable in today’s job market just aren’t borne out by the numbers. Long-term joblessness is elevated in almost every state and across all job categories and age groups, Shierholz pointed out.

Betsey Stevenson of the White House Council of Economic Advisors said that the Obama administration has responded to the long-term unemployment crisis by using his bully pulpit to urge employers to eliminate barriers that keep long-term jobseekers from getting a fair shot. The administration also has a $150 million “Ready to Work” program that supports job-connection partnerships between local governments, nonprofits and businesses.

But Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project offered several other steps that Congress and the White House could take.

For example, Congress could restore funding for the person-to-person reemployment services that used to be an integral part of the unemployment compensation process. Before unemployment compensation services were largely shifted online or via telephone, a person receiving benefits would report to an employment services office where “there used to be a lot of people … with a big Rolodex” of potential job contacts. In that world, the best unemployment offices were also matchmakers for jobseekers and employers. “If we had a more vibrant reemployment function, we could help people hit the ground running,” she said. “We really don’t do that now, and to the extent that we do, it’s very scattershot.”

Conti also suggested that Congress and the administration could revive a version of a successful subsidized jobs program that was part of the Recovery Act. The program was part of the $5 billion Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Emergency Fund, and it allowed states and localities to subsidize the wages of a low-income parent or teen-ager in either a public-sector or private-sector job. Conti called the program “overwhelmingly successful,” with about 80 percent of the people who received subsidized wages able to keep their jobs after the subsidies ended.

Of course, a robust program to shore up our transportation network, fix public school facilities and address our other public assets would be a common-sense way to create millions of jobs and improve the options for the long-term jobless. But not every solution requires money. Congress could pass the “Equal Employment for All Act” by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (and by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)) that would prevent employers from routinely using credit checks to screen out job applicants, a tactic that severely disadvantages people who have been without a steady income for a long period. Congress could also pass the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would make it easier for victims of age discrimination in employment to bring cases against the offenders.

The fact that even these rather simple measures are languishing in Congress right now is a reflection of the lack of urgency around the unemployment crisis among too many people in Congress. Yet it is not surprising at all that Republicans who were willing to block unemployment befits for people who through no fault of their own – who were in fact victims of growth-suppressing austerity policies forced on the country by conservative intransigence – have not acted on these other common-sense ideas.

Ultimately, the point of Tuesday’s panel was to bring home the need of a broad full-employment movement. In a February article, Conyers and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) pointed out that in the year after World War II Congress, following up on President Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” for economic well-being, passed an Employment Act to “promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” That and subsequent bills set the stage for the strong and vibrant middle class, and the overall strong American economy, that lasted into the 1970s.

Today “there are good ideas in both parties for closing the skills gap, spurring infrastructure investment and reducing unemployment. But we need political will to pass a serious jobs bill,” they wrote.

The renewed attention the plight of the long-term jobless is getting can be an opening to build the kind of grassroots pressure that will stiffen the spines of our natural allies and get others scurrying to gather the “will” to finally do the work they should do to move us toward full employment.

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