On Thursday, Congress finally passed a bill that extends unemployment benefits through November for people who have been jobless for more than six months. President Obama signed it without delay.

Unfortunately, the legislation succeeded after a seemingly endless ideological debate filled with often-demoralizing rhetoric and assertions that seemed designed to negatively target people without jobs; i.e. more than 10 percent of America’s population.

Part of the opposition to the bill was rooted in concerns over the growing deficit. Many Republicans and a few Democrats contended that unemployment insurance extensions should not add to the deficit and should be paid for with budget offsets.

The deficit is, without doubt, a legitimate long-term concern for Americans.

But much of this particular debate seems more rooted in a November election strategy than a genuine immediate worry, especially when most of the Republicans who cry deficit, had very little trouble pushing through the previous administration’s economic policies that caused a big chunk of the current trillion-dollar deficit to begin with.

A larger and more pernicious part of the public discourse is the ridiculous contention that so-called safety-net programs such as unemployment insurance can create disincentives to work. In March, for example, Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona argued that a jobless benefits extension would be counterproductive “because people are being paid even though they’re not working … if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

It gets worse. On a recent Face to Face interview with Nevada journalist Jon Ralston, Sharron Angle, the Republican running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, tried to clarify her position that unemployment benefits should be cut because “spoiled” workers are living off them instead of getting a job.

She believes that there are plenty of jobs out there for the unemployed, but that extended benefits are discouraging workers from re-entering the workforce because they pay more than entry level work does.

Facts contradict Angle’s convictions, however. The average unemployment benefit is about $293 per week. For every open job, five or six people are applying.

The highest unemployment rate at which these extensions were allowed to expire was 7.2 percent. Yet Angle and others are certain these benefits actively keep people from working and that, if they are slashed, employment will begin to flourish in our country.

There is a serious cause-and-effect flaw in the notion that unemployment benefits cause unemployment to rise. If A happens before B, then B cannot be the cause of A. Unemployment came first, then benefits increased, so the benefits can’t be the cause of unemployment. Simple.

“Saying that increasing benefits causes unemployment is like saying that the presence of oil-catching booms causes oil spills, or that rain is caused by people carrying umbrellas,” writes American Prospect blogger, Paul Waldman.

To even imply that the unemployed are living high on the hog on less than $300 a week and are too content and lazy to look for a job, is equally ludicrous. Never mind, the countless families who are facing homelessness, the record levels of food stamp participation and the continual economic disparities among people of color.

“Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work, but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there,” writes columnist Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

A major reason there are so few jobs, he notes, is that we have weak consumer demand. Helping the unemployed by putting money in the pockets of people in real need helps to support consumer spending.

This is why the Congressional Budget Office rates aid to the unemployed as a highly effective form of economic stimulus.

Historically, unemployment insurance has been viewed as a welcome safety net when jobs were lost, and extending benefits during persistent jobless periods was seen as the right thing to do.

Today, U.S. workers are facing the worst job market since the Great Depression. They are not spoiled or lazy, they are desperate.

To use partisan politics and unfounded economic theories at the expense of the unemployed during these times is cruel and misguided.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

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