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Republicans and Unemployment

Protestors Rally At NYSE For Jobs And Unemployment Benefits
Protestors Rally At NYSE For Jobs And Unemployment BenefitsGetty Images

One of my unemployed friends excitedly called my attention to the fact, two weeks ago, that the Senate had reached a compromise and put forward a bill to renew extended benefits for unemployment. These ended at the end of December, putting many who were dependent on the meager checks for food and utilities in dire straits. The compromise reportedly included back payments for those who have been without any other income for what is now three months. My friend wanted to know how long it would be before that money came.

The answer may be never. As I explained, such a bill would have to go to the House of Representatives, and while the still Democratically-controlled Senate might put through a bill that would spend money to help the unemployed, the Republican-controlled House is not going to be so eager. Already the argument has begun, as our Congressmen want to strip the bill of the back payments and add other provisions that the Senate has resisted. It is what passes for negotiation in our present polarized political stage: we will not give you what the country needs unless you give us what we want. Both sides do it. It just happens that at this moment the Republicans are doing it.

It seems a very foolish position to take. Desperate people are looking for that money; they have unpaid utility bills that have been building as they hope for some kind of breakthrough, and this might have made a difference. It might have put some of them in a better position to find work. It certainly would have acted as a stimulus for the economy--the unemployed are going to spend whatever money they can get, not sock it away in a mattress somewhere. These are not people who do not want to work. They only receive unemployment because they were working, and lost jobs for reasons for which they were not to blame. Many of them support specific issues for which the Republicans are known. Yet if this does not pass, it will appear to the voting public that the Republicans blocked a measure that would have saved the unemployed from foreclosures, utility shut-offs, insurance payment defaults, food shortages, and other hardships, and driven many to the very welfare programs Republicans want to curtail. It will undoubtedly mean that even some of the most principled of such voters will decide that they cannot afford their principles, that were the Democrats in control of the legislature there might be food on the table, hot water in the pipes, a car on the road, and a way to look for work.

Surveys to this point say that the Republicans are in a strong position for the midterm elections, that they will keep the House and have a good chance of winning the Senate. Yet they have been losing voters because of the very issues that their base supports. They cannot also afford to alienate voters who believe in much of what they represent but cannot afford even to look for work without that government check to keep them alive. Republicans sometimes claim that the Democrats are trying to make all Americans dependent on a welfare system supported by the few wealthy individuals who are working, but failure to pass this particular bill is likely to increase that dependency, not reduce it.

Ultimately, if the Republicans do not take steps to help the unemployed now, some of them may find themselves in those ranks by the end of the year.