Republicans who are playing politics with long-term unemployment benefits in the midwinter of a record-slow recovery are engaged in a very dangerous game, especially if they think they're up to their usual tactic of pleasing their base by rooting out wasteful "welfare queens" and the like.
That's because today's long-term unemployed make up a substantial part of the Republican Party's base. Economists say it's false to suggest that most of those who've been out of work for six months or more are urban ne'er-do-wells looking for handouts, and that the benefits they receive only induce them to stay on the dole. On the contrary: The data show that today's long-term unemployed, more than in the past, cut across every age, racial, ethnic, and educational group and are mainly suffering from a slow-growth economy that simply is not providing enough jobs for those eager and ready to take them.
And if they are made to suffer even more from an economic phenomenon that is not of their own making, they're very likely to take out their anger politically on those responsible. "The Great Recession pulled in groups that were not highly represented among the long-term unemployed before," including far more whites and educated people than in the past, says Josh Mitchell, a researcher with the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, and author of the 2013 report "Who Are the Long-Term Unemployed?"
For some Republican legislators, the rhetoric being used against long-term unemployment benefits echoes the kinds of things they have been saying against Obamacare and the extension of Medicaid and food stamps, suggesting a new kind of class warfare.
But that may be a tactical mistake. It is true that African-Americans, a mainstay of the Democratic Party's base, make up a somewhat disproportionately large percentage of the long-term unemployed. But that percentage is dropping as the effects of the Great Recession linger on in a slow-growth era when companies are still stingy about hiring, and it becomes more and more difficult for even educated, relatively skilled people to avoid the stigma of long-term unemployment. Whereas African-Americans made up 27 percent of the long-term unemployed in 2007, now they are just 22.6 percent of the total. By contrast, Hispanics—a much-sought-after GOP demographic—make up a greater share today (19.0 percent now versus 14.1 percent in 2007). And while long-term-unemployed workers tend to be less educated than employed workers, they are actually somewhat more educated than newly unemployed and "discouraged" workers—another data point suggesting that far more of them are part of the GOP base than one might think.
The long-term unemployed are also more likely now to live the GOP's geographic strongholds. They now make up 26.8 percent of the total in the West (versus 19.9 percent in 2007), and they are slightly more likely to live in the South (34.8 percent now versus 31.7 percent in 2007) instead of in the Midwest (18.9 percent now versus 29.1 percent in 2007).
Finally, because economic studies show that the condition of long-term unemployment can last into the next generation, affecting the education and job prospects of the children of today's sufferers, the political effects could endure as well.
With the economy operating at such high unemployment, economists say it's much less likely that extended unemployment benefits will prolong joblessness; on the contrary, as long as they are getting benefits, today's long-term unemployed are more likely to keep searching for jobs than dropping out of the workforce entirely. Under these conditions it's also much more likely that a renewal of benefits will stimulate the economy by promoting more spending.
While the number has declined with the overall jobless rate over the last two years, the number of long-term unemployed is still at historic highs of 3.9 million, accounting for 37.7 percent of the total unemployed workers. Nearly 6 million more workers have dropped out of the labor market entirely.
About 1.3 million jobless workers who had been receiving about $256 weekly in emergency unemployment benefits have gone nearly three weeks without aid since they were cut off at the end of December. And while Republicans and Democrats have achieved relative amity on an overall spending bill, they remain ideologically deadlocked over the benefits question. Despite the efforts of their colleague Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada—which has the highest unemployment rate in the nation—Senate Republicans have blocked legislative efforts at even a three-month extension of benefits, saying they need to see cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for them.
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