Hate unemployment, not the unemployed

Last week, speaking before the American Enterprise Institute, Speaker John Boehner was asked about a recent speech Rep. Paul Ryan gave on repairing the safety net and helping families get ahead.

Boehner’s response started thoughtfully enough: “We’ve got a record number of Americans not working. We’ve got a record number of Americans stuck, if you will. And I think it’s our obligation to help provide the tools for them to use to bring them into the mainstream of American society.”

But then the Speaker had what Paul Krugman wrote was a Mitt Romney “47 percent” moment. He said, “I think this idea that’s been born over the last—maybe out of the economy, over the last couple of years that, you know, I really don’t have to work. You know, I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d just rather sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country.”

And just like that, the problems of poverty and unemployment are reduced by the Speaker to a simple and familiar conservative orthodoxy. They did it to themselves. They don’t want to work. They are “stuck” because they want to be. The problem is not unemployment; it is the unemployed.

Bashing the jobless has been going on pretty consistently for more than four years now. The Congressional battles over the extension of federal unemployment insurance were colored by all kinds of stereotypes. Even when the number of unemployed Americans hit more than 15 million in the scorched-earth labor market left in the wake of the financial-market collapse, the unemployed were repeatedly depicted as different from the rest of us—lazy, likely to be using drugs, opting for a government handout, not understanding the value of a day’s work.

Any American who has lost a job or who has watched a friend or family member lose a job since the onset of the Great Recession nearly seven years ago knows that this is not the reality of being unemployed in the United States today. There are nearly two million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries than before the recession, and they have been replaced by jobs in lower-wage industries. In the Speaker’s home state of Ohio, roughly 166,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the recession, but less than a third have returned. Does Boehner think this is because Ohio manufacturing workers would rather “sit around?”

In the new economy, hiring is frequently the last option for business expansion. In today’s labor market, most job applications are never acknowledged, and unemployed workers seldom interact with a human resources office. Hiring is often outsourced to consultants who screen hundreds of resumes using keywording software that often culls out qualified workers just because they have been unemployed too long.

Good jobs that pay well are rare, and part-time low-paying jobs with erratic schedules and no benefits are plentiful. In this labor market, the unemployed have to take chances. They have to think about getting more education but still need to support themselves and their families in the interim. They try out part-time jobs or temporary assignments in hopes that they will turn into something better. They take a chance on some kind of work they have never done before because their old industry is dead.

Sometimes these risks pay off, but just as often they don’t. And when these survivors of the new economy once again find themselves without work or income, they must turn to a safety net that is fraying badly and rapidly. Congress ended federal jobless aid for the long-term unemployed at the end of 2013, and as a result, only one in four of the nation’s 9.6 million unemployed workers are receiving any form of unemployment insurance.

Meanwhile, the demonization of the unemployed is a trend that has spread to some state capitols. There are a growing number of states that no longer offer the basic maximum 26 weeks of unemployment insurance that has been the national standard for more than 50 years. In fact, seven states now provide only 20 weeks of benefits or less, despite clear evidence that it takes most workers much longer to find a job anywhere close to what they lost. In North Carolina, eligible jobless workers can receive no more than 14 weeks of benefits.

The question posed to Speaker Boehner last week was an important one. It is time to start a national conversation about repairing the safety net and helping families get ahead. But let’s start that conversation by agreeing that it is possible to hate unemployment without hating the unemployed.

Read the original article at The Hill.

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George Wentworth

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