For the estimated 1.3 million Americans who lost their unemployment insurance benefits when Congress allowed them to expire on December 28, President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday offered the first glimmer of hope they had seen in weeks.
Equally encouraging news came on Friday with the President’s announcement of a partnership with the CEO’s of 300 top American employers – companies like Walmart, Apple and Verizon – to agree to a set of “best practices” in hiring that includes a commitment not to discriminate against the long term unemployed.
Even so, none of this goes nearly far enough in addressing this immediate, and rapidly growing crisis.
Passage of the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, a proposal known to few Americans outside of those with an AARP card, would go a long way toward leveling the playing field for those older job-seekers viewed by some employers as more of an expensive risk due to the health issues which come with age.
But Obama’s remarks – which made up less than two minutes of the hour-long SOTU speech – also probably ring somewhat empty for those most affected by the sudden loss of their only source of income. It also remains to be seen whether Obama’s “Call To Action to Give the Long-Term Unemployed a Fair Shot” initiative with big business translates into opportunities at the local level, and policies that trickle down to regional HR departments, or not.
Two separate Democratic sponsored bills to extend the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (or EUC) benefit checks to the long term unemployed (26 weeks or longer) had been declared all but dead in the water only two weeks prior. The vote was initially rejected by Republicans over concerns on how to pay for it, and then over procedural rules allowing for additional amendments to be tacked onto the legislation.
The media covered this for about two days. But once the bill was stalled, they quickly moved on to more important stories like the Chris Christie “Bridge-gate” scandal, Justin Bieber’s DUI arrest and the debate over whether Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s post-NFC championship outburst translated into Straight Outta’ Compton style thuggery.
So much for the fifth estate.
But if this sort of maneuvering seems more like a case of simply moving the goal posts in a game of partisan, political football, the painful reality of the matter is that a significant segment of the American population have become more like pawns in a very cruel game. The way that Congress, and Republicans in particular – elected by the people to represent their constituents, rather than advance their own political and personal agendas – have so far turned their backs on these millions of American citizens, is nothing short of a national disgrace.
Think for a moment about the well over one million – that’s million with a great, big capitol “M” – most severely affected by this. With every passing week that Congress fails to act on extending these benefits, an additional 72,000 citizens will be added to this already much too high number.
That’s more American citizens than the thousands who lost their lives on September 11, 2001, or the many more who lost everything in the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
If that comparison seems somewhat exaggerated, it really isn’t when you think about it. For the long term unemployed, these EUC checks – which average about $300 or less a week – are a crucial lifeline as they continue to search for work in an increasingly tough, and in many cases, even hostile job market. For many of these people, this sudden loss of income has become the difference between paying their bills and putting food on their table, and in the most extreme cases keeping a roof over their head.
As their only source of income in most cases, EUC not only pays for necessities like food, rent and utilities – it also pays for that all-important job search. It pays the internet bill which is the only way to search for these jobs (the days of searching newspaper want-ads and going door-to-door, went the way of VHS and 8-Track tapes long ago). It pays the phone bill used for those initial phone screens, and puts gas in the car to drive to those increasingly rare, much harder to come by in-person interviews.
For the long-term unemployed, the numbers run much higher. One recent study by the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of Chicago found that job seekers out of work for one month, stood a 45 percent better chance of receiving an interview than those unemployed for eight months.
Another study conducted by the internet job site Career Builder yielded even worse news – that among those who’ve been out of work for a year or longer, nearly a third say they haven’t had a single interview. 25 percent of those also report not having enough money for food.
Inevitably, many of these people will soon be relying on outside sources like community food banks, as well as entitlement programs like food stamps for the first time in their lives.
President Obama has referred to this situation as a “cruel Catch-22” scenario, and he is absolutely correct. The longer that a person remains unemployed, particularly in a job market where employers can afford to be so choosy, the harder it becomes to re-enter the work force.
Obama himself is not entirely without blame though. Long term unemployment is a problem that has been a slowly festering sore on the economy pretty much since the day he took office. Granted, the great recession was an inheritance Obama received from the previous administration.
But as the problem snowballed into a crisis during his first term, the President instead devoted most of his energy towards passing the Affordable Care Act, which as it turns out will cost the same long-term unemployed who can’t afford to buy Obamacare to be penalized come tax time this year. A credible argument could also be made that Republican exploitation of these concerns, among other factors, is exactly what cost him the Democratic majority in the House needed to advance the rest of the Democratic agenda.
Including, you guessed it, unemployment and jobs.
The good news is that Obama’s SOTU address appears, at least for the moment, to have refocused Democratic efforts to get an extension for EUC passed, and according to some reports, a deal may even be near at hand.
However, assuming that the Republicans in the Senate suddenly put partisan politics aside, grow a conscience, and put any proposal extending unemployment to a vote, there is still the much tougher matter of getting such a bill through the House, much of which is controlled by hard line Tea Party Republicans.
Meanwhile, for every day an extension is delayed, more and more Americans will suffer. Unemployment is not “Fun-employment.” There is nothing “fun” about being out of work. And to those who callously say otherwise, shame on you.