As Republican senators were preparing to head to their home states Thursday for a week-long recess, several of them told The Huffington Post’s Michael McAuliff that they have no regrets about filibustering an extension of emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. After all, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said to McAuliff, “Republicans actually have principles.”
Apparently one of those principles is that it is OK to leave Wessita McKinley, an unemployed Air Force veteran in a Washington, D.C., suburb, abandoned on the side of the economic road with nothing. Or that it is acceptable to let someone like Sharice Peterson, who has struggled to find a job – literally any job – for a year in Philadelphia, hit bottom, and then take the bottom out from under her.
Since the program expired on December 28, about 1.5 million of the long-term unemployed – people who have been looking for work for more than 26 weeks without success – have lost weekly emergency benefits because of congressional inaction. Some of the people who lost their benefits appeared on Capitol Hill on Thursday to share their stories and to underscore the travesty of the Republican filibuster. They helped deliver petitions with 500,000 signatures collected by a coalition of progressive and labor groups calling for immediate congressional action to restore the benefits.
Congress’ adjournment for the week without renewing these benefits was the left jab of a one-two punch against the jobless. The right hook was the passage in the House and the Senate of a spending bill for 2014 that does virtually nothing to accelerate job creation. The same Republicans who complained that people should be getting jobs instead of unemployment checks also boxed Congress into passing a budget that will essentially guarantee that the long-term unemployed will continue struggling to find work.
Conservative lawmakers either don’t get the irony of their position, or, as our Dave Johnson suggests, they are deliberately trying to sabotage the economy for political gain. Either way, their actions are economically destructive and morally repugnant.
Because of their actions, they now have 1.5 million people like Wessita McKinley and Sharice Peterson to answer to.
“I have been working since the age of 12 and have proudly served my country as a member of the U.S. Air Force,” McKinley said. She lost her job as a human resources official with a local school board in June 2013, and since then she says she has sent out hundreds of resumes to no effect. And now that her long-term unemployment benefits were abruptly cut off in late December, “now I have no income at all” to pay for food and rent, and nothing to cover the tuition bills for her 20-year-old daughter.
Since 2007 McKinley has also been running a community organization in Maryland called Sistas United. In recent months, she said, the requests for assistance from the Sistas United food pantry have tripled. “I have had people come into my food pantry crying. I have had to talk people out of killing themselves. I have had to hold grown men who have broke down crying because they cannot provide for their families,” she said.
“Without jobs or benefits, we are all sinking into desperate hardship. Is anyone thinking about this cycle of devastation and how long it will take people to recover even once they do finally find a job?” she asked.
Peterson has been unemployed for a year. Even with her experience as a medical assistant in what experts say is a growing health care field, Peterson has hit nothing but dead ends. And in the year that she has been sending out dozens of job applications a week – encountering what seemed like “more than 10 people applying for every job” she applied for – “I have been evicted from my home” and is now in a shelter, and “I have had to sell my clothes” in order to feed herself.
“I have hit rock bottom,” she said. “I basically have almost next to nothing left.”
Peterson has done everything the right-wing ideologues pontificate. Incessantly beat the pavement to try to get a job? Check. But she’s trapped in a musical chairs game in which there are far more job-seekers than jobs. The unemployment rate in Philadelphia in August was 11 percent, well above the national average at that time of just above 7 percent.
Be willing to take whatever job is offered? Check. But not even neighborhood fast-food restaurants would offer her a job. “I even applied for a job in housekeeping, and I was told I was overqualified,” she said, adding sardonically, “I don’t see how.”
Be prepared to get training to upgrade her skills and make herself more attractive to employers? Again, check. She wants to go to nursing school, but at this point she doesn’t have the money. “How am I going to do that if I don’t have a job?” she asked.
But “Republicans actually have principles,” and their principles require that these two women – and 1.5 million like them – who are busting their butts to make it in the harshest economy for working-class people in decades, be evicted from their homes; sell off their possessions, including their clothes; and be stripped of their dignity – all because conservative ideologues do not believe that we as a nation should take even a pittance out of our national pocket to give them the hand up that they need without that being “paid for” out of the hide of someone else in need.
It is true that the nearly 4 million people who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks – and the millions more who have given up and fallen out of the labor market altogether – need more than the $300-or-so weekly checks from the government. They need a job. That is why it is shameful that Congress passed a 2014 budget that does not make key investments that would create jobs in the short run and bolster the private sector in the long run.
Note, for example, that the 2014 budget cuts funding for community planning and development programs that could be targeted to areas of high unemployment. The Republican summary of the budget boasts in boldface that “no funding is provided for High Speed Rail,” even though expanded high-speed rail would have immense benefits for the nation’s transportation network. It disdainfully asserts that there is no new funding for “‘sustainable,’ ‘livable’ or ‘green’ projects,” rejecting opportunities to create good-paying and modestly skilled green jobs. Republicans show their support for job training by cutting the Employment and Training Administration by 5 percent and funding the Job Corps at the same level it was funded in fiscal 2009. There is no special funding to ramp up repairs to schools and other public facilities, which would open up high-wage jobs in areas such as construction.
These policy priorities are nonsensical and cruel responses to an economy experiencing weak demand, with job growth overwhelming concentrated in low-wage sectors of the economy and with long-term unemployment stuck at record levels.
But perhaps, given this one-two punch in the guts of the unemployed, there is opportunity in the fact that members of Congress are now out of Washington and in their home states and districts, where they might have to face the voters victimized by these policies. Let them brandish their “principles” to the faces of the Wessita McKinleys and Sharice Petersons in their congressional districts. Let them explain how it is better that they are losing their homes and possessions and going hungry than it would be if we spent $6.5 billion – six-tenths of 1 percent of the 2014 federal budget – to give them at least three more months of a subsistence lifeline while they struggled to regain their footing in this economy.
One proposal from Senate Democrats would have given the long-term unemployed that three-month extension, and then committed Congress to finding ways to cover the cost of a longer duration of benefits. It is the least that Congress should do, and it should be a fundamental demand we make of each member of Congress as they spend the next week in their districts.