Working In These Times
Republicans—Primarily—Make Jobless Plight Worse
The country's unemployment crisis continues, as GOP blocks small stimulus bills and expiration of jobless benefits looms
The unemployment figures released last Friday may have been discouraging, but putting them in the context of what Republicans—primarily—have been doing politically, they also seem cruel, outrageous, and unnecessarily harsh.
The number of jobs in the United States grew last month, but the bad news is that the 80,000 net new openings did not quite keep pace with the growth in numbers of people looking for work.
Even when averaged with the revised, healthier figures for the previous two months, Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker says, the economy is producing jobs so slowly that the country will take 33 years to return to the pre-recession unemployment rate.
And even though the official unemployment rate dropped by one-tenth of a point to 9.0 percent, Heidi Shierholz of the Economy Policy Institute calculates that "the entire improvement in the unemployment rate since its peak two years ago is due to workers either dropping out of, or never entering, the labor force." If those individuals had remained in the labor force, unemployment would be 10.4 percent.
Here's the unnecessarily cruel part: Private-sector employment grew by 104,000—still hardly robust, but the public sector shed 24,000 jobs. And what did Congress do? After Senate Republicans blocked Obama's American Jobs Act, they separately rejected spending $35 billion to help local governments to hire teachers, firefighters and police, and avoid public layoffs and their economically depressing ripple effects.
Also, private sector growth was depressed by layoffs of 20,000 construction workers. But with a huge supply of willing workers, low interest rates and a backlog of pressing needs, Republicans (joined by Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska) blocked a separate bill to spend $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport repair and $10 billion seed money for an infrastructure bank.
The problem? The legislation was funded by a small millionaire's surtax.
Democrats are pressing forward with other legislation that might both ease the pain of the
unemployed and create or preserve jobs, but Republican opposition is all but certain.
Most imortant, two laws that provide unemployment benefits beyond the 26 (or fewer) weeks of state-financed unemployment benefits will expire at the end of the year. If they are not renewed, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) figures that in January, 1.8 million unemployed workers will lose weekly payments. That money, first, provides a skimpy but essential lifeline to those out of work through no fault of their own, and second, provides $2 in stimulus towards preserving or creating jobs for every dollar the federal government spends.
The number of long-term jobless as a share of all unemployed declined somewhat last month, but remains still extraordinarily high at 42 percent. The share of long-term unemployed has set records both as a proportion and in the duration of those high levels since such records started in 1948.
Less dramatic "jobless recoveries" have been the norm since the early 1990s, but with the financial and housing crises still depressing growth, the unemployment dilemma is worse this time.
Indeed, so many people who lost their jobs have either been excluded entirely from the
unemployment insurance system or have exhausted their benefits that less than half—48 percent—of the 14 million unemployed receive any benefits. That's down from 75 percent early last year. Even if Congress did renew extended federal benefit at a cost of $44 billion next year, the "99ers"—people who have been unemployed longer than the 99-week maximum duration of benefits—would be out of luck.
Democrats are resigned to finding some offset to finance the extension renewal—and it will
have to be a cut in programs Republicans don't like, since they will block any new tax or addition to the deficit. Last year President Obama traded continuation of Bush tax cuts for the rich for the renewal, which Republicans largely opposed, saying it just extended life on the dole.(So why are millions of long-term unemployed who lost their benefits still out of work? It might have something to do with the ratio of more than four job-seekers for every new job.)
If extended benefits are not renewed, Shierholz and Lawrence Mishel of EPI estimate that a half million jobs will be lost next year. Republicans want unemployment high to defeat Obama, but Congress has never failed to renew benefits when the unemployment rate was as high as it is, and politically their blocking the renewal could create blowback. The fight may come down to the trade-off in cuts elsewhere they can extract.
The odds are bad enough for the unemployed during this economically depressed period, but NELP and others have documented a widespread practice in job listings: would-be employers advertise jobs saying that they will only consider applicants who are already employed. People who are unemployed are not only told not to apply; in some cases, they are automatically rejected by computerized, on-line application forms.
John Challenger, CEO of the job placement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told In These Times that he thought such practices, including giving preference to people out of work a shorter period, have "been in place a long time. The longer you've been out of work, the more the company worries about your motivation, whether inertia has set in, whether your skills are new." But Challenger said, "There's so much no-fault job loss. It doesn't seem to me a smart company would exclude people."
As publicity increased about the bias against the unemployed, at least one on-line career site decided to prohibit such discrimination in the advertising, but even then it has no guarantee that the companies don't continue to discriminate in practice. That's why Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced legislation to prevent discrimination in advertising or consideration of applications against the unemployed.
Defeated as part of the American Jobs Act, the now-freestanding anti-discrimination bill faces attacks as "yet another unfair burden on business that will cost jobs," says Judy Conti, NELP federal advocacy coordinator. The bill faces such strong business and conservative opposition that its immediate prospects are not good despite the blatant unfairness of an employer refusing even to consider an application for a job from someone without a job. But "the Chamber of Commerce hates the bill," Conti says. "You do the math."
Once again, the cruelty of right-wing policymakers and politicians deepens unnecessarily the pain and suffering of an economic crisis for victims who had no part in causing it.