How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: It's heartless to oppose extending unemployment benefits

I have finally found a conservative commentator, other than David Brooks, who seems to understand that budget cuts and slashing the safety net are not a panacea. Peculiarly, his last name is also Brooks. Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan, conservative, pro-business think tank that promotes the American ideals of private liberty, individual opportunity and free enterprise. He and I agree that providing a safety net is a legitimate function of government; but we disagree on extending unemployment benefits beyond the 26 weeks typically provided by states as the economy struggles to fully recover from the deepest recession in modern times.

Brooks is a heavyweight who earned a B.A. degree in economics from Thomas Edison College in 1994, before completing a master’s degree in economics and earning a doctorate in public policy.

Brooks believes, to the chagrin of some conservatives, that “it is appropriate for the government to provide some safety net for its citizens. … [I]t is unacceptable for some in America’s wealthy society to go without access to basic medical care, sufficient food, and basic shelter.”

In support of his opposition to extending unemployment benefits, Brooks cites research by Harvard professor Robert Barro, who estimates that current unemployment would be lower if unemployment benefits had not been extended.

I favor extending unemployment benefits for five reasons.

First, the reason the Bush administration extended them originally in 2003 is still true: It is much harder to find a job during a recession than is normally the case. This has been especially the case during the Great Recession (during the prior two recessions, in 1994 and 2003, the share of workers unemployed for 27 weeks or longer was 1.3 percent vs. 2.6 percent this time).

Second, with rare exception, the long-term unemployed have not lost their work ethic; they simply can’t find work. While unemployment among those out of work for a short time has returned to historical norms, it remains extremely high for those who have been seeking jobs for longer periods (in New Jersey, the number of long-term unemployed comprises half of all those unemployed).

Third, as Michael R. Strain, a resident scholar at the AEI recently wrote in an article in the National Review Online, “[I]f we let emergency federal UI [unemployment insurance] benefits expire, then the best guess based on research is that more long-term unemployed workers will simply quit looking for a job and exit the labor force. …We should not want today’s long-term unemployed to permanently exit the labor force simply because their UI benefits expire. Why? Because many may end up on government assistance until they reach retirement age. That is worse for them, worse for the economy and more expensive for the federal government over the long term.”

Fourth, as economist Paul Krugman recently pointed out, “Employment in today’s economy is limited by demand, not supply. Businesses aren’t failing to hire because they can’t find workers, they’re failing to hire because they can’t find enough customers. And slashing unemployment benefits – which would have the side effect of reducing incomes and hence consumer spending – would just make the situation worse.”

Fifth, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, “UI has one of the largest economic bangs for the buck.” For every dollar of extended unemployment benefits provided to jobless Americans, $1.49 is pumped back into the economy.

The immediate consequence of Congress’ refusal to renew expired jobless benefits was that 1.7 million people who had been receiving benefits were cut off. An additional 1.9 million will find themselves in the same position during the first half of 2014 and another 1.6 million by the end of 2014. As Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in his maiden speech Feb. 3, “Every week that we delay [extending long-term benefits], 70,000 Americans lose their benefits.” Some of these individuals have already seen a significant cut in their food stamp benefits.

Congress has never let unemployment benefits expire in the past when unemployment has been as severe as it is today. I know Republicans say they are willing to extend unemployment benefits if the Democrats will make corresponding budget cuts now to offset the increased cost. However, an offer by Democrats to fund the program through November was rejected by Republicans in the Senate, because it used budget cuts that wouldn’t take effect for a number of years.

For the vast majority of the long-term unemployed, extending their benefits will not, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) contends, discourage them from seeking employment, “causing them to become part of the perpetual unemployed group in our economy.” That is both callous and unconscionable. It suggests that the long-term unemployed have some sort of character flaw that has sapped their initiative. That is simply not true — there are three times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings.

I know folks who have been out of work for a very long time and they desperately want to work.