Less than a week after the U.S. Census Bureau reported record levels of poverty in the United States, congressional leaders have informed members of a progressive jobs coalition that there will not be a vote before the November elections on a jobs program for low-income people that is set to expire on September 30.
In the absence of any action by Congress, many of the 250,000 people employed in the program stand to lose their jobs.
The culprit: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his conservative colleagues in the Senate. The program in question—the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund—is not moving forward because McConnell’s “hell no you can’t” party won’t allow a measure containing funding for the program to come to the Senate floor.
That’s not the only jobs program that’s not moving. Progressive activists have been told that the Local Jobs for America Act, which would directly fund public-sector and social-service jobs, is also unlikely to come up for a vote this fall. That’s not a surprise, frankly, because the conventional wisdom has been that neither the Democratic congressional leadership nor the White House has the stomach to fight a battle over a multibillion-dollar jobs bill weeks before the congressional midterm elections. (The Huffington Post did report late Wednesday that Senate Democrats will push for a vote on an “American Jobs and Ending Offshoring” bill within the next two weeks. That bill waives payroll taxes for new hires for two years while ending a loophole that allows corporations to avoid taxes on income earned overseas.)
Still, the impending expiration of the TANF Emergency Fund program is a stunning blow.
Last week 30 senators, all Democrats, signed a letter urging the program be continued. “Without immediate Congressional action, tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the coming days and weeks,” the letter says in part. “Job losses in the states and counties with the large subsidized employment programs could see substantial increases in their unemployment rate. Small businesses that have relied on the fund to expand during the recession and rehire laid-off employees will once again face financial uncertainty. And states may implement reductions in cash assistance, assistance which is effective in stimulating the economy because the poor families receiving it spend virtually every cent in their local economy immediately to meet basic needs.”
It’s another example of conservative hypocrisy. As we’ve noted before, the jobs component of the TANF Emergency Fund does precisely what many conservatives say public policy for out-of-work low-income people should do: Get people who would otherwise be on welfare off the dole and into a productive, private-sector job.
The $5 billion emergency fund program was included in the Recovery Act package Congress passed in 2009, and the administration is seeking an additional $2.5 billion in funding for fiscal 2011, which begins October 1.
Liz Schott and LaDonna Pavetti of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities earlier this month wrote that the program “has been a ‘win-win-win,’ helping unemployed families find work, businesses expand capacity in a difficult economic environment, and local economies cope with the recession. Without the fund, some 120,000 young people would not have had summer jobs and some 130,000 parents would not have had jobs to provide for their families’ basic needs; they would also have lost a valuable opportunity to build skills for the future.”
NPR recently told the story of David Sullivan, an unemployed Chicago resident who got a $10-an-hour hotel maintenance job through the TANF program. Schott and Pavotti share other anecdotes and testimonials from around the country, including one from South Carolina officials who say that their state’s welfare caseload, which had been rising during the recession, dropped after it launched its subsidized jobs program.
The House has twice approved funding to extend the program, but block-and-blame Republicans are not budging on their contention that $2.5 billion to keep low-income people working and above the poverty line is not something that the nation can afford—but we can afford $80 billion in just the next two years alone to continue the Bush tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of Americans.
Last week Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced a jobs and “tax extenders” bill that included money for continuing the TANF Emergency Fund. That legislation, however, was blocked by McConnell and his band of do-nothings within moments after it was introduced. It turns out their actions answered a question I asked last week—Are Senate conservatives so desperate to hold the economy hostage to their political ambitions and ideological rigidity that they would block even Baucus’s relatively unambitious bill?—before I even asked it.
No doubt when the pink slips start to be issued next week for these TANF workers they will be tempted to blame the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress for not fighting hard enough for them. But the real blame lies with a right wing in Congress that has become so rigid, self-righteous and control-obsessed that it would rather see people unemployed and starving in the streets, as the rich party on in their enclaves with their tax breaks, than have a modest amount of tax dollars go into a program that not only reflects moderately progressive policy but also fundamental human decency.