While it’s ill-advised to read too much into any weekly or monthly report on the nation’s jobs outlook, the latest unemployment numbers are heartening, not merely because weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell to a four-year low but because that news follows an unmistakably positive trend.
An increase in the rate of economic expansion — estimated at nearly 3 percent in the final three months of last year — has given rise to the improvement. But that’s not exactly cause for celebration, as the U.S. unemployment rate remains relatively high at 8.3 percent as of last month (and that’s not counting those who have given up looking for work).
Clearly, jobs are not yet plentiful, and the challenge facing job-seekers can still be formidable. That’s why the vote Friday by Congress to renew soon-to-be-expiring jobless benefits — as part of the negotiated economic package extending the payroll tax cut — was welcome news for the millions of Americans who remain unemployed.
Unfortunately, that decision comes at a cost. For several decades, it has generally been a given that unemployment claims were extended beyond the normal, state-funded 26-week limit by the federal government on an emergency basis when times are as hard as this. Only when the recovery is moving at full steam should such extensions be allowed to expire.
But Republicans in Congress — and their arch-conservative allies at Fox News and the other usual haunts — have succeeded in vilifying those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. They have portrayed them as akin to welfare queens, indolently living off undeserved weekly paychecks with little desire to leave the “good life” and return to the working world.
Newt Gingrich has called them lazy (even before he called the children of the poor lazy). He and fellow presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have opposed extending benefits. They’ve argued that it causes people to stay out of work longer. Mitt Romney has even referred to himself (facetiously, it is presumed) as unemployed.
So the extension comes with a catch — two of them, really. First, it will gradually shrink the number of weeks a person can receive unemployment benefits nearly in half. Second, it will “pay” for this $30 billion, 10-month extension, in part, by forcing future federal workers to contribute substantially more for their pensions — raising their contributions from 0.8 percent to 2.3 percent of their paychecks.
In Maryland, where the unemployed are currently eligible to receive up to 86 weeks of benefits, this will mean a worker can receive that number only until the end of May. From June to August, the maximum will be 60 weeks, and after that, it’s down to 56 weeks. If unemployment dips below 6 percent at any point, the benefit falls even further.
Considering how modest these unemployment benefits are — the average Maryland recipient receives $321 per week before taxes — and how much paying out those benefits has helped the economy (one recent study estimates they’ve created or preserved a half-million jobs), this would seem pretty foolish. Are “lazy” workers really happily embracing a life that features exhausting one’s savings and facing foreclosure and financial ruin because of that weekly pittance?
Meanwhile, the GOP’s war on federal workers continues despite a recent Congressional Budget Office report that shows college-educated federal employees are paid the same as (or in the case of those with advanced degrees, less than) their private sector counterparts. They are not the cause of the federal deficit or unemployment, so why pick on them?
The answer is, in all likelihood, because it plays well at home in those districts where irate tea party protesters regard federal civilian employees as enemies of the people. They are easily targeted and Democratic-leaning anyway, so why stand up for them? After all, if it means another year of protecting the wealthiest Americans from paying more in taxes, there’s little incentive beyond fairness and compassion.
The extension of the payroll tax cut (accepted by Republicans without offsets) is an important boost to the economy because it puts more money in the pockets of 160 million workers. But it is unfortunate that those who don’t even have jobs will gradually be eligible for less — and about half of what they do receive will come out of the pockets of every new clerk-typist, janitor, cancer researcher, park ranger, accountant, FBI agent and so on employed by Uncle Sam.