Tahlequah Daily Press

January 13, 2014

Extend benefits for jobless – for now


TAHLEQUAH — When it comes to extending unemployment benefits for Americans who lost their jobs in the wake of the 2008 “Great Recession,” the public is understandably ambivalent.

On one hand, a sudden and widespread loss of individual incomes will deliver a serious blow to the economy, since people who don’t have money can’t spend it. Many businesses, especially the smaller mom-and-pop operations, would be hit on the bottom line, and leaner profits could translate into more job cuts, furloughs, and loss of employee benefits, perpetuating the already vicious circle.

On the other hand, benefits have already been extended to the point that many fear unemployment insurance will become another entitlement program, and  those receiving checks from the government will give up pounding the pavement in this tough job market.

Cherokee County residents have mixed feelings, like everyone else. A poll on the Tahlequah Daily Press website last week asked whether benefits should be extended, and the 100-plus respondents were almost split down the middle: 49 percent for, 49 percent against, and 1 percent undecided.

On the national level, support for the extension is a bit higher, at 58 percent, and that largely falls along party lines. A Quinnipiac University survey showed 83 percent of Democrats support the extension, while independents and Republicans only do so by roughly 42 percent.

At any rate, it all might be moot, since Congress may not take action – due to extreme partisan politics or paralyzing ineptitude, or most likely, both.

The Senate did barely pass the measure, with conditional support from a handful of Republicans who wanted a plan to pay for it. The revamped legislation trimmed the 47 weeks of the previous jobless benefits extension to a maximum 31 weeks. These, as in the past, would kick in when state-funded benefits ran out, typically at 26 weeks.

Democrats worked out a 10-month proposal paid for through other types of extensions – to the sequester cuts on mandatory spending, and the reduction in Medicare payments to providers. The caveat: Sequester cuts would be delayed until 2024 so as not to damage the current fragile economy. The plan would save around $17 billion. As of Friday, though, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – who like his counterparts in both parties, is evidently no brain surgeon – may have botched the deal when he refused to allow Republicans to amend the latest plan.

At this point, it’s doubtful the House will even take up the measure. But it should, if for no other reason than the qualified support of respected columnist Charles Krauthammer, who writes for the Washington Post. Krauthammer is not concerned about increasing the deficit, because the cost is a comparative blip on the radar. He’s worried about creating a new entitlement class, though he acknowledges most Americans do want to work. He’d like to see legislation that details an “unwinding” of the benefits extension so its temporary status is crystal-clear.

One proposal that hadn’t gained much steam Friday would eliminate the ability of folks on Social Security Disability Income to get jobless benefits. This is more than fair, since it’s a form of double-dipping to which those in the workforce don’t have access. And it would save an additional $1 billion.

For some, a jobless benefits extension might be the lesser of two evils. For others, it might be the best way to keep the economy ginning along until it gets stronger. Whatever the reason, it’s a sure bet that most folks receiving the benefits aren’t, and never were, deadbeats. True entitlement leeches seldom work long enough to accrue any benefits.

For some long-time workers, jobless benefits are a justifiable lifeline, even if the rope can’t be infinitely long. Later this year, we should give some of those in Congress a taste of what it feels like to stand in that line.