The GOP’s Risky Rebuff to Long-Term Unemployed

The people losing benefits are a truly national phenomenon, cutting across all age groups, races, and political preferences. Beware the ballot backlash.

A group of demonstrators hold up signs before a markup hearing of the Senate Finance Committee October 11, 2011.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Jan. 16, 2014, 10:48 a.m.

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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