The Abandoned and Scorned

Spurred on by another speech by another leading Republican politician (in this case Speaker John Boehner) suggesting that historically high and persistent unemployment rates are the fault of the unemployed themselves, Paul Krugman provides a timely reminder of an issue that has all but been forgotten in this election year.

I don’t know how many people realize just how successful the campaign against any kind of relief for those who can’t find jobs has been. But it’s a striking picture. The job market has improved lately, but there are still almost three million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. That’s nearly three times the pre-recession total. Yet extended benefits for the long-term unemployed have been eliminated — and in some states the duration of benefits has been slashed even further.

The result is that most of the unemployed have been cut off. Only 26 percent of jobless Americans are receiving any kind of unemployment benefit, the lowest level in many decades. The total value of unemployment benefits is less than 0.25 percent of G.D.P., half what it was in 2003, when the unemployment rate was roughly the same as it is now. It’s not hyperbole to say that America has abandoned its out-of-work citizens.

Now Krugman is right in drawing attention to the “animus against the unemployed” so regularly expressed by conservatives, when they aren’t shedding crocodile tears for the terrible injustice being done to all recipients of government assistance via demoralizing food, initiative-sapping shelter, and spiritually damaging health coverage. But this ought to be a subject at least occasionally mentioned by Democratic politicians, too. A higher minimum wage isn’t of much use to people who cannot find work. Abandoning the long-term unemployed is a sin even if it is not compounded by scorn.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.