, , , , , , ,

The recently enacted federal budget that everybody is regarding with relief but no hosannas failed to extend federal jobless benefits. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about 5 million people currently  receivng these benfits stand to lose them if they are not extended. In Missouri, where one in every six people already struggle with hunger, 84,500 individuals will lose this vital support.

National unemployment currently hovers at around 7%. Lots of jobs were lost in the Bush recession; lots of them will never come back. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every job opening there are three unemployed individuals. And these are the official numbers; if you count the people who aren’t actively looking for jobs, the number is much higher, by some estimates for every job opening there more than six jobless.

If you listen to Republican politicians, however, you will come away with the impression that doing away with unemployment benefits is the road to full employment.  According to far too many in this party of rabid extremists, it is the meager unemployment benefits on offer, acting as a “disincentive” to the unemployed, that are responsible for our high unemployment figures. This line of reasoning was expressed most pungently by those whom Greg Sargent dubbed the “Let Them Eat Want Ads Caucus” when the issue of extending benefits first came up in 2010, but it remains a favorite in the ongoing Republican War on the Poor, surfacing most recently in Rand Paul’s self-righteous declaration that unemployment benefits are doing a great disservice to those who can’t find work since it permits them to wait around until benefits expire before taking honest work, perhaps unfitting them to ever work again.

However, much like the claim of the parent who wants his misbehaving child to believe that punishment will “hurt me more than you,” it just isn’t so – as recent studies on work incentives make clear (see, for example, here, here and here). I’m not saying that you won’t be able to pull up an example of some poor sod whose expectations are so low that bare bones unemployment checks can compete with any paycheck he or she could hope to earn; I’m simply saying that analysis of research results shows that even in countries with generous benefits, such individuals are the exceptions and not the rule. Even many economists who buy into the disincentive theory are aware that the argument does not apply to today’s labor market. As the conservative National Review‘s Reihan Salam writes:

If you have something like five job seekers for every job listing, like we do today, you don’t need to worry about this very much. Let’s say that half of unemployed workers are eligible for UI, and half of those prefer to draw UI rather than return to work. You’re still left with several interested job seekers for every job listing, and so UI benefits should not have a big effect on unemployment rates.

The GOP disincentives doctrine, though, isn’t just wrong; it’s far more sinister. The absence of economic safety net features such as unemployment benefits combined with high levels of competition for jobs leaves those workers who are lucky enough to get a job powerless. They are unable to exert any influence over the conditions of their employment.There’s a reason that people flock to factories in third world countries where pay is barely sufficient to maintain life and working conditions are often lethal; it’s because they don’t have any choice. So is it any surprise that the very politicians who are also busy doing all that they can to weaken unions – the main mechanism for worker’s rights – also want to make sure that when it comes to a choice between the sweat shop or the boneyard, folks have no alternatives?

The conservative response to this concern is the old beggars can’t be choosers gambit; should people expect to have a choice if they’re living off the public dime? The answer, in short, is yes. We’re all the public and it’s our dime as much as anyone else’s. We don’t want to be like China or Indonesia, or, God forbid, Pakistan; we want jobs, yes, but good, well-paying jobs and a rational allocation of our human capital.

Nor do we need to worry if some of the unemployed hold out awhile, waiting for more suitable jobs. We, and the economy as a whole, are better off when people have the flexibility to secure jobs that use their skills appropriately. As the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times notes, when enough people “give up their skills, training and experience to take a job flipping burgers or operating a cash register just because those are the only ones available” it will “waste a lot of investment in human capital.”

On the one hand, we can go all in for the cheap and easy Republican jobs plan which depends on desperate people, ripe for exploitation by a monied elite – and which requires, paradoxically, keeping unemployment high. On the other, we can make the effort to sustain our citizens in such a way that prosperity is shared and we all benefit from economic growth. It’s a little harder, but I believe that it’s what leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan envisioned when they spoke about the “shining city on a hill.” As the Political Animal‘s Kathlees Geier puts it:

… it is well within the power of one of the richest societies the world has ever known to ensure that each one of its citizens has access to the resources she needs to live a decent life. And no, wingnuts, doing so will not undermine the moral character of poor people – though it might cast a harsh spotlight on your own.

(Cross posted to Daily Kos with a slight change in the 2nd sentence.)