07 July 2010

Cruel and Clueless: Conservatives on Vacation

In case you missed it this weekend, take a moment right now to read Paul Krugman's latest column in the New York Times, which looks at the current situation with joblessness in America, and the cruelty -- and "cluelessness" -- implicit in Congress' unwillingness to extend unemployment benefits for the millions who now are living without paychecks.

As Krugman points out, when it comes to alleviating the dire impact the economic crisis has had on millions of Americans, the conservatives have gotten it dead wrong, espousing beliefs that are both heartless and confused. Leaving town, refusing to pass extended unemployment before vacationing -- whether these moves were the result of cynical political calculations or a consequence of being completely out of touch with the terrible reality that millions of Americans now face, conservatives have clearly lost their moral compass.

Krugman cites some simple truths, which most Americans understand intuitively. First, cutting off benefits to the unemployed may make them increasingly desperate for work -- but they can't take jobs that aren't there (at present, there are five unemployed workers for every one job opening in the US economy).

Moreover, in Krugman's estimation, the amount of money these extensions would add to our national debt amounts to what he calls "penny-pinching" relative to the other issues that that have sunk us so far in the hole (see wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to start).

All of this refusal on the part of conservative lawmakers, as most of us can surmise, has a great deal to do with the fact that there's an election season looming in the near future. And many conservatives may be betting that saying "no" to more spending will cast them as the good guys in voters' eyes. But as our recent Community Voices on the Economy poll with the Center for Community Change makes clear, the majority of Americans aren't really thinking about the deficit. They're thinking about how to put food on the table. Our polling [pdf] shows that Americans are less concerned about the federal budget issues than they are about rising health care costs, the lack of jobs with family-sustaining wages, and the affordability of everyday expenses like food and gas.

In other words, if lawmakers are really interested in pandering to voters, they'd be better served by helping them meet their daily needs rather than cutting them off from the only source of support many have left: government aid.

Continuing unemployment insurance is not only good for the economy, it's the right thing to do in a country that has too often been dominated by the "everyone for themselves" ethos (more than 90% of those polled rejected this mentality as being of value today). Clearing up lawmaker confusion about how to effectively treat a strained economy, as Krugman aims to do, is vitally important. But it's also critical that lawmakers and laypeople alike understand how little popular support there is for the hands-off approach conservative lawmakers are peddling. In these times, people both want and need a government that is willing to take a strong hand on the economic front; they want a government that can acknowledge that unemployment has been uneven in its effects (recent statistics put levels at 12.4 percent among African-American women and 10.3 percent for Latinas, but just 7.4% for white women), and that is willing to champion policies that create jobs with decent wages to the benefit of low-income communities.

Across party lines, our poll shows that Americans believe in the government's ability to influence the economy. And what most of us want, though we may differ in the details, is for the government to use that influence to shore up this nation's economic future. Leaving millions of jobless workers out in the cold while lawmakers quibble, and then head out on vacation without a resolution, does nothing to further that cause.

So enough already with the party lines; in the real world, families are at their wits' end. Americans want -- and deserve -- far better than this. It's high time lawmakers started delivering.

Sara K. Gould
President and Chief Executive Officer
Ms. Foundation for Women

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