Thirty-eight Americans a minute. That's how many people have been losing their unemployment benefits since June 2. Every minute.
Rounded off, 55,000 a day. For 41 days. That's 2.25 million Americans who have lost the ability to keep a roof over their heads, buy food, keep the electricity on, pay health premiums. They wouldn't be at so great a risk if most Senate Republicans, Sen. Ben Nelson and the damned filibuster rule weren't standing in the way of extending their benefits. And those couple of million may soon have another million for company. If Harry Reid can't twist Ben Nelson's or Gov. Joe Manchin's arm hard enough - or figure out how to get another Republican to join Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in voting for the extension - an additional 1.1 million people will see an end to their benefits by the end of July.
These aren't Americans who lost their jobs in the past few months and are still making do from savings, credit cards and parental assistance. They're the long-term unemployed – some of the 6.8 million Americans without work for 27 weeks or longer. Most of them, 4.7 million, have been jobless for more than a year. If you've been following the details of our ongoing jobless disaster, you know that both those official figures are post-Depression records. Almost certainly an undercount.
No six degrees of separation comes between them and us. Who doesn't know somebody – or somebody who knows somebody – caught in the grinder of long-term joblessness? A typical case: the guy laid off at 55 and unable to find another job to cover the routine costs of survival, much less provide care for an aging parent and keep a kid or two in college.
Foes of extending unemployment benefits keep spouting two excuses. First, benefits create hobos, layabouts who enjoy spending every day watching cable, drinking six-packs of brew and luxuriating on an average $315 a week instead of looking for a job. For a three-person family, that comes in at $16,380 a year, a couple of grand below the poverty line. Cushy, eh? The second excuse, which we've been barraged with for weeks, is that America cannot afford another extension because of the federal deficit. Between now and November, the extension would cost $33 billion.
These excuses are mere cover for what Republicans who have blocked the extension really want – to make life hard as possible until November. This, they believe, despite their disgraceful record at holding out-of-work Americans hostage to their ideology, will somehow give them cachet to trash the Democrats. And for what? For failing to achieve economically what Republicans have done everything in their power to keep them from achieving. They take their leader Rush Limbaugh seriously.
Paul Krugman describes them as the coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Right on the first count. But unconvincing on the second two. The heartless are neither clueless nor confused. They have a clear-headed agenda: economic terrorism. They're the real-life version of Saw. And their shameless goal is straightforward: worsen the economic situation for millions of Americans' in hopes of scoring more seats in Congress so they can cause even more damage to people's lives.
If they really wanted to ensure that extended benefits be paid for without increasing the deficit, they could easily accomplish it. For instance, every nickel of the extension could be recaptured if a Big Oil tax loophole bill, S. 4213 had passed. Or they could have chosen not to approve another $37 billion in supplemental war spending. Moreover, the cost of the extension is not so much as it first appears. As Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, pointed out last week on CNN, "the government recovers at least half of the [unemployment benefits] invested this way through higher revenue and taxes."
As for laziness, it's yet another bogus attack on the working class. See this 2007 study at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Let Krugman – who has been in ass-kicking mode of late – explain:
...as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.
The heartless ignore the fact that Congress has never previously cut unemployment benefit extensions with joblessness so high. As Heather Boushey, Christine Riodan and Luke Reidenbach at the Center for American Progress and the National
UnEmployment Law Project wrote last month:
Since the 1950s, federal unemployment insurance extensions remained in place during recessionary periods
until unemployment dropped to as low as 5.0 percent. The highest unemployment rate at which these extensions were allowed to expire was 7.2 percent, following the 1983 recession – substantially lower than our current rate of [9.5] percent.
At the current rate of job growth – 119,000 a month for the first half of 2010 – it will take two years to get the unemployment rate down to 7.2 percent. Unless, of course, as happened in June, more than half a million workers leave the labor force every month. Those drop-outs don't just vanish into thin air. But the more who leave, the better the official jobless rate looks, even though the reality is a demoralized cohort of millions who have given up looking for work and are no longer counted as unemployed. Statistical phantoms.
Laura Clawson Mitchell Hirsch wrote last week at Working America:
Imagine, Senators, that your weekly pay of $3,346.15 were reduced by, say, $3,000 and you and your family were left to try to get by on $346.15 a week — which is, by the way, slightly more than the average weekly unemployment check.
Now imagine that, suddenly, even that meager $346.15 a week disappeared as well.
Unfortunately, way too many Senators can't imagine that prospect any more than they can imagine living on Food Stamps or moving back in with their parents.
Most of the same Senators – like most of the media – also are unaware of another group of unemployed Americans: the several million who aren't eligible for unemployment benefits in the first place. Given their cynical, obstinate resistance to extending benefits to those who are eligible, the mere thought of helping the ineligibles is way down the list of priorities. And nowhere does that list mention remedies for the crippling effects of off-shoring jobs, job loss through automation, stagnant wages and the tripling of the income gap between the ultra-rich and everybody else over the past three decades.
But then, of course, quite a chunk of Democrats aren't too keen on confronting those crucial long-term issues either. Extending unemployment benefits is a good and necessary action. But it is, as it's always been, a stopgap meant to ease acute situations. How large does the Democratic majority have to become before we see somebody with political clout actually doing something instead of merely talking about our chronic economic problems?