January 15, 2014
Long-Term Unemployment Benefits as the Paradigm of the "Safety-Net"
Those on the conservative side of our Mirror of Justice family, me included, frequently explain that our skepticism about state-centric proposals does not mean that we lack compassion for the unfortunate. To the contrary, we conclude that Catholic values are better advanced — not always, but often — by relying on inspired private initiatives and making room for communities and charities to work, not weighed down by government bureaucracy administered from Washington, D.C. Still, we insist, that doesn’t mean we think there is no role for government. We do believe in a safety net after all. Really.
If so, then the current debate in Congress about extension of long-term unemployment benefits should be an easy case for us. If ever there were a case for preserving the “safety net,” this is one.
We’re not talking about permanent welfare type benefits given to those who shirk work and enjoy living free and easy on the dole. The very fact that these individuals are receiving unemployment benefits means that they were employed. They had established themselves as working Americans and then had that taken away from them, through no fault of their own.
Nor can continuation of those benefits legitimately be criticized as fostering dependency and discouraging a return to the work-force. No one who has earned a living wage will be satisfied for any length of time by the small weekly supplement provided through long-term unemployment benefits, always less than half of prior wages and typically about $300 per week. As Michael Strain, a conservative economist, pointedly observes: “A large share of the long-term unemployed are people with relatively high earnings potential and personal responsibilities that extend beyond themselves. It is hard to imagine an educated worker in her prime working years with a kid at home having allowed a $300-a-week check to stand between her and a strenuous job search for over half a year.”
Even with such benefits being continued, savings accounts will dwindle, mortgage payments will be missed, plans for assisting children with college expenses will be put on hold, and plans for retirement will go out the window. At best, long-term unemployment benefits slow down the economic decline and ease the impact. But the beneficiaries retain every incentive to return to full-time work.
Michael Strain points out yet another reason for allowing unemployment benefits to continue somewhat long: “If the benefits allow people to be more selective with which jobs they take, and they end up with a better match, that will increase their productivity, their contributions to the economy are higher in the long run, the likelihood that they'll quit or get fired later is smaller.”
Without long-term unemployment benefits, our neighbors who still cannot find work in this weak economy risk damage to family economic security from which they may never recover — a legacy of displacement and impoverishment that will be passed down to the next generation. When the house is lost to foreclosure, not because of foolish real estate purchases but the tragedy of a lost job, that family may never again be able to accumulate savings for a down payment or obtain the credit to buy a house. When children are forced to drop out of college because parents’ have emptied all savings to keep a roof over their head and put food on the table, their first steps into adult life lead to disappointment and discouragement. Long-term unemployment benefits provide a way to help ease that interruption of work and safeguard the American dream despite temporary setbacks.
Moreover, Republicans, so often incompetent in recent years in political messaging, have yet another reason to support long-term unemployment benefits. The very need to continue these benefits sends the message yet again about the failure of the Obama Administration on the economy. Now entering its sixth year in office, the Obama Administration continues to have a dismal record in restoring jobs to this economy. Indeed, President Obama has a history of promoting job-killing measures, from the Obamacare mandates to employers to the ramp up in environmental regulations.
A month ago, the job numbers were reported widely to be encouraging, although most commentators overlooked the fact that nearly half of those new jobs were in government and thus not adding to the productivity of the economy. And now this month, the job numbers are forthrightly discouraging. And more so than after earlier recessions, the numbers facing long-term unemployment are staggering. That is why we need to continue long-term unemployment benefits.
This should be the Republican message, which would have more power (and more persuasive value) if accompanied by the sensible step of extending long-term unemployment benefits. Instead, failing as a matter of principle as well as political strategy, Republicans in Congress have missed the chance to do the right thing here and to get political credit for it.