Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 17, 2014

Unemployment benefits not just for emergencies anymore

Taylor Armerding
CNHI News Service

Editor's note: CNHI newspapers that are not weekly subscribers to Taylor Armerding's column may publish this one if they notify him at t.armerding@verizon.net.

Thoughts while Congress squabbles over keeping “emergency” unemployment benefits at 99 weeks:

To start with the most trivial, what is the magic of 99 anyway? Why not just make it 104, which would be a nice, neat two years?

Back in the dark days before civilization - when horses pulled carts on cobblestones streets running with open sewage - standard emergency unemployment lasted 26 weeks, or six months. So, why not just a multiple of that?

Or is there is something psychological about keeping the number of weeks from the next order of magnitude – sort of like prices that are always $9.99, or $99.99, or $999.99, etc.? You know, so we can all feel like it’s not being overdone, that 99 is reasonable but 100 would be over the top?

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Along that same line, could we be a bit more honest and drop the pretense that this has anything to do with an emergency? An emergency is supposed to be sudden and brief. How about we call it “new normal” unemployment benefits that now and forever will be due to the “mess” President Obama inherited from President George W. Bush.

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In fact, why limit it to two years? Why be so heartless, cruel and extremist as to put any limit on it at all? Especially when the beautiful people in the TV and movie industry still gather in their gowns and tuxedos to congratulate themselves on how well they pretended to be other people ….

Oh, wait, sorry. They are mostly far-left liberals, so they’re immune from attack even when they flaunt their wealth and 1 percent status. What I meant was, how can we limit unemployment benefits when those predatory, capitalist, right-wing creeps on Wall Street are still making millions – obviously by stealing it from the poor and middle class?

“Progressives” tell us that people are looking hard for jobs but the jobs just aren’t there. Therefore, we as a society must not abandon them without the means to pay their mortgage, rent or, more importantly, smartphone bill.

Beyond that, it will always be possible to find stories – millions of them – about people who are out of work ånd will be on the streets without their unemployment check.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the official unemployment rate last month was 6.7 percent, which meant 10.3 million people out of work. Even if that drops to 5 percent – what economists consider a “full-employment” economy – there will be 7.2 million stories exactly like those today, which every TV station will run in an endless loop until Congress extends benefits yet again.

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The president and his followers keep telling us that unemployment benefits help the economy – that every dollar of benefits produces $1.80 of economic activity. If that is true, why don’t we all quit working, start collecting and watch the economy roar back to life?

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Have we really been in an economic recovery for the past five years – one that President Obama frequently tells us is “miraculous" and has occurred thanks to “the policies I’ve put in place”?

It seems like a fair question, because there is a major disconnect between claims of recovery and the claim that unemployment is still at an emergency level.

Would the media have let Bush get away with that?

A talk show on National Public Radio a few weeks ago had a discussion of unemployment benefits. An expert went on for several minutes about how President Obama’s leadership had spurred the economy into recovery, and that all the signs were not only pointing in the right direction but moving in the right direction.

Then, in the next breath, she went on about how it would be an economic disaster to return to non-emergency unemployment benefit levels - which in most states are at least six months - because “people are able and willing to work, and are looking for work, but the jobs just aren’t there.”

If unemployment is still an emergency, why should the president get a pass on the absurd claim that this is a miraculous recovery?

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This is not a screed against unemployment benefits. I believe in them. I used them for four months a couple of years ago and was thankful to have them, even though my peek into the bureaucracy that administers them was not pretty.

But it is not heartless or cruel to ask if continuing what is supposedly an emergency benefit for two years provides the best incentive to get people back to work.

There are, in fact, jobs out there. I see retail and food establishments posting signs along the road saying they are hiring. These may not be high-wage jobs. Indeed, they may not be jobs commensurate with someone’s skills and experience. But they are better than no job – unless, of course, there is a government check coming in.

The point is, incentives matter. Subsidizing people to hold out for the perfect job is different from claiming there are no jobs.

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Finally, this is an administration that seems to celebrate dependency. The president congratulates himself for growing numbers of people collecting unemployment or food stamps.

Why isn’t he more focused on getting people off those programs? Do we really want to make it easier to remain unemployed, or to get back to work?

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net