Why the apathy about unemployment benefits?

Just a few weeks ago Congress let long term unemployment benefits lapse. Now, the Senate is attempting to restore them. The Republicans in the House look likely to try to prevent that. On the legislative side, it seems the most common objection is a lack of funding. I’m sympathetic; given how long the program has persisted it’s not unreasonable to want to provide funding for it. But unless Republicans actually propose a funding method that objection just functions as an excuse. It’s a way to end unemployment benefits without admitting that they wanted to.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is pushing to make this a major issue as part of their effort to focus on inequality. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to be getting much traction with average people. I think it should. Let’s remember the context we’re in.

About six years ago now there was a massive financial catastrophe, and many people lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Ever since then jobs have been scarce, and people have been forced to take jobs outside of their field, work part time instead of full time, retire, or perpetually look for work. There is systemic bias against the unemployed, making it much harder for those who didn’t immediately find work to get a job.

Unemployment is still elevated. That is to say, since the crash we have not created enough jobs to employ all the people who lost them. So if long term unemployment insurance is lifted, what do we expect the people still on it to do? Remember, as long as there are more people looking for work than there are new jobs unemployment will remain a zero sum game. Trying harder might get one person a job, but it will come at the expense of someone else’s job. There is literally nothing the unemployed can do to reduce unemployment.

So there will be people who are unemployed and looking for work but will not be able to get it. What do we expect them to do? I see no reasonable answer to this question, which is why I’m so confounded by the apathy on this issue.


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