Five Days Left. Will Congress Act to Help Jobless?

Roger Bybee

An eviction team removes furniture from an apartment on December 9, 2009, in Colorado Springs, Co. The tenant, an unemployed school teacher, had fallen two behind months in her rent payments.

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What has happened in America has broke my heart. I can’t begin to describe the pain and anger.” —unemployed Kansan Netty Day

The clock is winding down on an extension of unemployment benefits needed by Feb. 28 for some 1 million jobless workers, including Netty Day. These people expect the government to bail them out, just as Congress bailed out Wall Street with $10.4 trillion of our tax dollars.

Some 16 months after the financial meltdown started, Wall Street is recovering quite nicely. Top bankers are getting ready for a luxuriating dip into the astounding $150 billion pool set aside for bonuses.

Meanwhile, Congress is moving so slowly on legislation needed for the unemployment extension, job creation and health coverage that Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning to seek a 15-day extension of the deadline. But this delay will cause chaos among state unemployment systems and frantic worry among recipients, in what Arthur Delaney of the National Employment Law Project calls a disaster for everyone.”

Actually, those receiving unemployment benefits are the more fortunate segment of the jobless. Only about 43% of the unemployed are now actually covered by unemployment insurance, reflecting increased contingent” (part-time and temporary) employment and the fact that most workers lack unions to inform them of their rights, as a 2007 Government Accountability Office report stated.

A NY Times article sympathetically but incorrectly reported on America’s weak safety net, stating that only two-thirds of unemployment people received state provided unemployment checks last year.” The story continued:

Factory work and even white-collar jobs have moved in recent years to low-cost countries in Asia and Latin America. Automation has helped manufacturing cut 5.6 million jobs since 2000 — the sort of jobs that once provided lower-skilled workers with middle-class paychecks. American business is about maximizing shareholder value,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics. You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

During periods of American economic expansion in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the number of private-sector jobs increased about 3.5 percent a year, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, a research firm. During expansions in the 1980s and 90s, jobs grew just 2.4 percent annually. And during the last decade, job growth fell to 0.9 percent annually.

Unemployed worker Netty Day, of Junction City, Kansas, wrote me recently, and her story illustrates perfectly what Corporate America’s practices mean to real human beings:

Two years ago my spouse was working for a company owned by GMAC Finance. They closed the office in Eugene, Oregon and outsourced his and many others jobs to the Philippines. Imagine how we felt when GMAC received bailout money.

Even though we know the bailouts were necessary, the sting caused an anger and frustration that brought about curse words that were forbidden from my vocabulary. Even though the bailouts were necessary to prevent further catastrophe, it was painful to hear.

With my spouse being unemployed for over a year and a half, [and while] my position at a non-profit was temporarily saved by stimulus dollars, we knew we had to make a huge change in our lives and do what we had to do to make a living. Desperately seeking a way to put the last ten years of struggles and strife behind us, we searched outside of our home state for employment.

My spouse was offered a job in Kansas and we relocated here last fall. He is working for less pay and we are ok with that. A job is a job! Leaving my home state, all my family and friends and everything else I knew and loved was one of the most difficult decisions I was ever faced with. A necessary move for survival.

I was allowed my unemployment insurance as a trailing spouse and it has helped us get by. I know in time I will secure employment as well at least there are jobs here to apply for and I am getting interviews. I am close to being out of my original 26 weeks of unemployment insurance with no hope of an extension unless Congress acts quickly … something I don’t trust they will do.

So here I sit in an unfamiliar town, no friends or family, no job and soon no money …

What has happened in America has broke my heart. I can’t begin to describe the pain and anger …

Congress needs to understand the true pain Americans feel, the desperation and the lengths we are going to for survival!

However, conservatives in both parties have shut out the plight of the jobless. Conservative Democrats in the Evan Bayh mold are acting as if the recession has ended and the nation’s top priority is deficit reduction rather than job creation through expanded federal programs.

President Obama himself recklessly reinforced this mentality in his State of the Union address, drawing a bogus analogy between the federal government and ordinary families both tightening their belts” during a recession. The federal government obviously can do what families cannot: use massive deficit spending to re-start a sputtering economy.

For their part, the Republican Caucus — of whom 95% seem to be channeling the obstructionist spirit of the late Sen. Jesse Helms — is prepared for Stonewall Jackson-style opposition on every issue where working people might benefit.

In this context, Harry Reid jettisoned a jobs bill that was loaded up with tax breaks for the rich by corporate servants Sens. Max Baucus (D‑Mont.) and Charles Grassley. Reid then hastily pulled together a meager $15 billion jobs bill that the New York Times described as so puny as to be meaningless.” As mentioned earlier, the bill also left out extension of unemployment benefits.

How do we manage to achieve such pitiful results at a point in history when 15 million are unemployed and there is little prospect for any significant hiring for several years? A key part of the answer, as economist Paul Krugman pointed out several years ago, is, that the Democrats have never fully repudiated and refuted trickle-down economics where handouts to the rich supposedly translate into jobs for the bottom 80 percent.

In the Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington drew attention to the Democrats’ lack of urgency in shredding the notion of trickle-down economics so that the public focus can devoted squarely to job creation:

Less than a month ago, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama declared, jobs must be our No. 1 focus in 2010.” So why is there no sense of urgency coming out of Washington?

Perhaps the reason can be found in the stunning results of a study conducted by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Studies that broke down the unemployment rate by income. Unemployment for those making $150,000 a year, the study found, was only 3 percent in the last quarter of 2009. The rate for those in the middle income range was 9 percent — not far off the national average. The rate for those in the bottom 10 percent of income was a staggering 31 percent.

These numbers, according to the Wall Street Journals Robert Frank, raise questions about the theory behind what is informally known as trickle down’ economics, since full employment at the top doesn’t seem to be translating into more jobs below.”

Contrary to Sen. Evan Bayh, there is plenty of bipartisan compassion in Congress when it comes to bailing out the wealthy and their banks.

But when it comes to spending federal money to bail out folks like Netty Day with unemployment compensation and a major jobs program, a bi-partisan consensus forms among conservatives in both parties eager to show fiscal discipline.”

The pain of Netty Day, and millions of other jobless Americans, doesn’t seem to count for much.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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