Unemployment Benefits and Organizing For Change

Last December, President Obama gave in to the GOP’s demand to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. His reasoning, at the time, was that Republicans had held a knife to the throat of the extension of unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed. The GOP’s demand for voting to allow unemployment benefits to continue was the President authorizing the extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans, an extension which would cost the US an estimated $700 billion over ten years.

A lot of people agreed with the President that such a Faustian bargain had to be struck, that it was the least-bad of available alternatives (some of us disagreed), that the President couldn’t simply abandon the unemployed and that therefore the deal was ultimately worth it. Whatever the truth (or the President’s reasoning), the deal was struck. Unemployment benefits were extended, and the Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans were extended right along with the rest of ours.

Lately, though, observers have been noticing something odd about the ongoing plight of the unemployed (because it hasn’t gotten any better since December; in fact, last Friday’s jobs report cemented the notion that the recovery may be in more than just a stall): you don’t hear much from them in the public sphere. President Obama wasn’t wrong when he pointed out the plight of the unemployed; it’s a substantial burden on over 9% of our workforce. So why are they (comparatively) silent? The financial troubles (chiefly high unemployment) in Greece has caused ongoing rioting, and the much-discussed Arab Spring currently going on throughout the MENA region began in Tunisia as a result, primarily of high unemployment. So why is the United States different, commentators like Catherine Rampell in the New York Times began to wonder?:

The United States is in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one. That is off the charts. Many Americans have simply given up.

¶ But unless you’re one of those unhappy 14 million, you might not even notice the problem. The budget deficit, not jobs, has been dominating the conversation in Washington. Unlike the hard-pressed in, say, Greece or Spain, the jobless in America seem, well, subdued. The old fire has gone out.

Indeed, at least in comparison to those other places, it certainly seems to have done so. Rampell offered a few reasons for why this might be, including that 9+% unemployment means that 90% of Americans are still working (making the unemployed a relatively small constituency), and noting that the unemployed don’t vote as reliably (further reducing their political clout). But she didn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why the unemployed aren’t vocal and active and angry, as they are in other parts of the world.

Apparently, that gap in Rampell’s story – plus probably the additional weight of commenters to her article – compelled her to keep musing on the question of why the unemployed in America aren’t, well, angrier and more active. Yesterday, comes a follow-up article by Rampell, with what I think may be – sadly – the exactly right answer:

…many unemployed people are still receiving benefits nearly two years into their unemployment spell, whereas in the past benefits typically lasted a few months. While jobless workers today may not be living comfortably, they are at least able to get by, meaning that they have less need to resort to more radical organizing.

It is a depressing but easily verifiable truism throughout human history that a people who are well-fed and entertained tend to be difficult to motivate to agitate aggressively for political change. It’s only when a people’s own necks are against the blade that sustained, powerful movements tend to emerge. Whether it’s the oppression of racism or an even more elemental issue of not having enough to eat, people are far more likely to be organizable into mass movements when they’re suffering than when they’re more or less content. In some ways, this makes obvious sense: if things are going well(-ish), why rock the boat much? Some people will always be activists, but most people aren’t, by nature. They just want to get on with their lives and not be bothered.

Ironically, the one thing that President Obama gave up so much to secure – extension of unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed – may be one of the very things that’s keeping greater public pressure for more immediate change from coalescing in an organized fashion. Rampell continues:

Some of the community organizers I spoke with for the article agreed with this argument.

“I’ve been involved with the unemployed since the mid-’70s, and this is the least amount of organization we’ve seen,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

Nobody argues that unemployment benefits provide a kingly ransom. Well, OK – Republicans have actually recently been trying to make hay by claiming that extension of jobless benefits makes the unemployed lazy and causes them to stop looking for work. That’s a pretty ridiculous charge, since, as many commentators noted at the time, unemployment doesn’t even pay as much as the lowest-wage jobs. Virtually everyone would be financially better-off if they found a job than they would be living on unemployment (to say nothing of the damage being out of work does to most people psychologically).

But I think Rampell is on to something along the same lines which may actually be true: that UE benefits may be juuust enough to keep the lid on what you’d otherwise expect to be the powder-keg of sustained 9% unemployment. The combination of no job plus the meager but significant support of UE benefits may be producing a case where things for the unemployed are just horrible enough that they are motivated to find work, but not horrible enough that they feel compelled to take whatever EXTRA time they have after looking for work to take to the streets and organize.

To be clear: I think keeping people from desperation-induced rioting or even organizing by giving them a small amount to meet basic needs is preferable to the misery we’d see if UE benefits stopped. So, even assuming the above speculation is true, I certainly don’t think it suggests we ought to adopt a policy of canceling UE benefits to help promote larger-scale organizing for change. Human misery is real, and should be alleviated when possible. But it may be the case that the relative silence of the unemployed won’t last forever. Think about it: if the unemployment rate doesn’t turn around any time soon, the GOP will not keep extending those benefits forever. Or, they’ll ask for such ridiculous concessions from the Democrats that their demands can’t be taken seriously. Rarely in our history have we extended benefits as long as we are currently doing. And, as Rampell notes in her follow-up article:

Over the coming months, millions more unemployed Americans will start losing benefits, partly because states are cutting back the number of weeks people can receive checks, and partly because many people have been unemployed so long that they’re no longer eligible for even the maximum duration of benefits.

If people like Mr. Dodds are right, this mass benefit exhaustion may become a tipping point into greater political organization and radicalization of the unemployed, along the lines of what was seen during the Great Depression. As the bread and circuses run out, workers become more desperate, and desperation may lead to more political instability.

As awful as human misery always is, it cannot ever be completely avoided, whether in one’s own life or through acts of government in the larger society. As more and more people fall past the reach of UE benefits (or the political will to extend benefits further diminishes), one silver lining to the cloud of misery that will assuredly result is that the sort of grassroots agitation that’s frequently needed for large-scale change may grow in direct proportion to the unemployed’s sense of desperation. That would be a horrible way indeed for things to have to proceed, but we don’t seem to be having much luck in either bringing down the unemployment rate or in agreeing that the unemployed should be taken care of for as long as it takes.