Opinion Columns & Blogs

Unemployed need support from Congress

They are our neighbors and our kids' schoolteachers. They are the people who in better times built our houses and highways, manufactured the goods we use and stocked the shelves in our stores.

Meet the long-term unemployed. There but for some fortunate breaks go many of us. So why are they being vilified?

Congress is dithering on extending unemployment insurance benefits. The longer the debate goes on, the more it encourages the false but deep-rooted American notion that if a person is in need, it's got to be his or her fault.

And so we have senators and think-tank types opining that extended unemployment insurance presents a "disincentive" for people to look for work. As if living on uncertainty and an average of $310 a week is now the great American dream.

We have Rand Paul, the GOP senatorial candidate from Kentucky, lecturing on a radio show that "ultimately we do have to sometimes accept a wage that's less than we had at our previous job in order to get back to work and allow the economy to get started again." As if people desperate for jobs haven't thought of that.

We have people using the Internet's cloak of anonymity to express insulting opinions.

"The great unasked question in the face of bad unemployment numbers is, how many of these people weren't performing well even in the 'good' times?" a reader asked in response to a piece by journalist Rod Dreher on beliefnet.com.

And we have some employers specifying in their job listings that "unemployed candidates will not be considered" or applicants "must be currently employed." And, no, discrimination against the unemployed is not prohibited by law.

We have in our nation a tendency to want to blame people for their own bad circumstances. It reared up in the health care debate, when uninsured people were maligned as handout seekers.

It's social Darwinism in action even if some who exhibit it don't subscribe to the theory of evolution. And I will agree that actions and behaviors can and often do play a role in one's circumstances.

But right now we have five job seekers applying for every opening. Those are lousy odds, even if employers aren't stigmatizing the unemployed.

Who are the long-term unemployed? I asked Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a research and advocacy group.

They tend to be older, she said, usually 45 years and up. A majority are men. Many, but by no means all, have less than a college education. Many worked in construction, manufacturing, banking and retail. They have been out of work at least 26 weeks, often much longer.

I know some of these people. Many of them have worked for decades and took great pride in doing so. They are people who volunteer in their communities, send their kids to college and care for elderly parents.

The notion that they're using their unemployment checks to finance an extended vacation would be comical, except that some people actually believe it.

Conservatives tell us that "the overwhelming majority" of studies show that people postpone looking for work if they're receiving unemployment pay.

Don't buy it. Newer research is finding that it's not the lack of trying that's keeping people out of work. It's the lack of jobs.

One example: Economists Rob Valetta and Katherine Kuang at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco analyzed the experiences of workers who left their jobs voluntarily and received no unemployment benefits, and of workers who were laid off and receive unemployment insurance.

They found little difference in the length of time it took the two categories of workers to find new jobs. For both groups, the search took too long.

Of course Congress should extend unemployment benefits. The money will act as a stimulus, stave off foreclosures and keep people from needing other forms of aid.

Agree or disagree, but can we at least not make unemployed people the villains of this debate? They don't need the hassle.

They need jobs.