A New York Times editorial
It is hard to believe, as the holidays approach yet again amid economic hard times, but Congress looks as if it may let federal unemployment benefits lapse for the fourth time this year.
Lame duck lawmakers will have only one day when they return to work on Monday to renew the expiring benefits. If they don’t, two million people will be cut off in December alone. This lack of regard for working Americans is shocking. Last summer, benefits were blocked for 51 days, as senators in both parties focused on preserving tax breaks for wealthy money managers and other affluent constituents.
This time, tax cuts for the rich are bound to drive and distort the debate again. Republicans and Democrats will almost certainly link the renewal of jobless benefits to an extension of the high-end Bush-era tax cuts. That would be a travesty. There is no good argument for letting jobless benefits expire, or for extending those cuts.
The recession that began in 2007 has led to the worst unemployment in nearly 30 years. We have record levels of long-term unemployment. The jobless rate, 9.6 percent, has been essentially unchanged since May, and nearly 42 percent of the 14.8 million jobless workers have been sidelined for six months or more.
Some opponents of unemployment benefits — mostly Republicans but a few Democrats as well — would have you believe those figures are evidence of laziness, enabled by generous benefits. They conveniently ignore three facts. One, there are five unemployed people for every job opening — a profound scarcity of jobs. Two, federal benefits average $290 a week, about half of what the typical family spends on basics and hardly enough to dissuade someone from working. Three, as unemployment has deepened, benefits have become less generous. Earlier this year, lawmakers ended a subsidy to help unemployed workers pay for health insurance and dropped an extra $25 a week that had been added to benefits by last year’s stimulus law.
Other opponents would have you believe that the nation cannot afford to keep paying unemployment benefits: a yearlong extension would cost about $60 billion. The truth is, we cannot afford not to. The nation has never ended federal benefits when unemployment is as high as it is now, and for good reason: Without jobs, there is inadequate spending, and that means ever fewer jobs. A wide range of private and government studies show that unemployment benefits combat that vicious cycle by ensuring that families can buy the basics.
Nor do jobless benefits bust the budget. Just the opposite. They do not add to dangerous long-term deficits because the spending is temporary. And because they support spending and jobs, they contribute powerfully to the economic growth that is vital for a healthy budget. Extending the Bush high-end tax cuts would be budget busting, because they are likely to endure, adding $700 billion to the deficit over 10 years. Tax cuts for the rich provide virtually no economic stimulus, because affluent people tend to save their bounty.
Ignoring facts and logic, several Republicans have said that any benefit extension must be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere. That would, in effect, be giving with one hand while taking away with the other. It is not only cruel, but foolish, because it would reduce the economic boost that benefits would provide.
President Obama should pound the table for a clean, yearlong extension of unemployment benefits, and should excoriate phony deficit hawks — in both parties — who say that jobless benefits are too costly, even as they pass vastly more expensive tax cuts for the rich.