THE BLOG
07/22/2010 05:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spitting on the Unemployed

You might think nearly 3 million unemployed folks can breathe a little easier since the Senate finally managed to bust a Republican filibuster and pass a $34 billion unemployment benefits extension. Not really. Even with the House following suit with a 272 to 152 vote. The repeated fight over this vote is unprecedented, marking the dawn of a new age: don't expect the basics anymore. This was a sign of battles to come, unemployment insurance only the tip of the iceberg. Wait till we get to Social Security and Medicare. A recent Center for American Progress report by Heather Boushey, Christine Riordan and Luke Reidenbach suggests consequences resulting from this new trend:

Never before has Congress cut off benefits when unemployment was so high. This has serious implications for the unemployed, as well as every one of us who still has a job. Economists across the board agree that unemployment benefits are one of the most important counter-cyclical economic policies we have.

The culprits during this round were Senate Republicans griping over heavy debt estimated at $13 trillion. The rapidly foaming pre-election movement of conservative voters and activists eagerly press the debt narrative, pegging both White House and Democratic Congress as monster spenders. Strangely enough, many of those same folks are working class Whites in desperate need of similar benefits. Yet, much can be said for GOP party discipline since deficit spending wasn't a problem under the Bush Administration: Congressional Republicans easily voted for unemployment insurance when their man ran things and there was no spat over debt when Republican legislators appropriated a questionable world war, revenue-sapping tax cuts and a massive prescription drug plan - all draining a surplus for the history books. Government can benefit the military contractors, the wealthy and Big Pharma - but, "we'll be damned" before it benefits anyone else.

It's easy to blame Republicans. Yet, we've reached a moment in the national conversation when the existence of very basic benefits is widely questioned - even at a time when its needed most. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum offers her take on American entitlement:

To put it bluntly, middle-class Americans of the right, left and center have come to expect a level of personal financial security that -- despite the stereotypes -- most people around the world would never demand from their governments.

Cato Institute economist Michael Tanner suggests unemployment benefits simply encourage the unemployed to ... embrace unemployment. Extending benefits only makes it worse:

Few things are as dangerous as Congress when it tries to be "compassionate."

Congress risks turning unemployment into just another welfare program -- with a correspondingly low standard of living for its recipients.

Republicans found an out to soothe guilty conscience. And some Senate Democrats, lacking political fortitude, went along with that -- like ranking Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), as Robert Cruickshank in Calitics quotes:

"I had somebody from a company tell me they've offered jobs to individuals and they said well, I want to not come back to work until my unemployment insurance runs out. So we need to start looking at these things.

These are easy conversations when you're employed, paying bills and able to sip on good life. Applebaum herself, in her Great American Whiners piece, drops a short and snotty reference to personal globetrotting ("If you don't live in this country all of the time, and I don't, here is what you notice when you come home"). Traveling is great, but to brag about it while you're blasting the needs of others lacks some tack.

Senate Republicans are in good company. Despite high unemployment, the unemployed still see their plight as a badge of shame. Society, from consumer binging to social loafing, rubs it in. It's easy to snub the unemployed when you've got air conditioning during a triple-digit heat wave. Ultimately, the politics wore a stench as bad as urine in a stuffy subway station. The unemployed could barely get their meager buy-some-time extension until Wall Street got hooked up first with financial regulatory reform. And while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gets props for pushing hard early on for the extension, the White House slept on it until they recognized the perfect issue to smear Republicans with - waiting till the final week before yesterday's vote. Hence, ripping Republicans about the unemployed had little to do with compassion and everything about political gain. Expect the same debate in November.

-- CHARLES D. ELLISON

(originally published in Politic365.com)