This Labor Day, America’s losing patience with jobless

Posted Sept. 04, 2011, at 7:39 p.m.

Poll Question

WASHINGTON — As the nation celebrates U.S. workers this Labor Day weekend, many jobless Americans say they sense a growing indifference to their plight, and even a certain level of demonization.

For years, people who lost their jobs were the sad, sympathetic faces of the nation’s economic meltdown. But more than two years after the Great Recession officially ended, America’s empathy for the unemployed is showing signs of wear.

Many companies now shun the long-term unemployed when filling positions, fearing their skills have eroded or their talents don’t measure up.

America’s jobless also face increased hostility from conservative lawmakers, as more states cut the amount and duration of unemployment benefits, while making them harder to get and easier to lose.

In South Carolina, where state-funded jobless benefits were cut from 26 to 20 weeks, Republican state senator Kevin Bryant blogged in April that “part of the unemployment problem is that our human nature is to take advantage of the ability to get paid to not work. … I’m very sympathetic to those out of work desperately seeking it, but I’m disappointed that we have a significant segment of our society leeching [off] the system.”

Similar comments from a variety of conservatives reflect a sneaking suspicion that 99 weeks of extended benefits have taken the urgency out of job searches.

“Two years is a long time. At some point you’ve got to provide more incentives to get people to do things,” said Frederick Tannery, an associate economics professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

The notable change in tone begs the question: Has America lost patience with the unemployed? And have extended jobless benefits caused some to view the long-term unemployed as the “welfare queens” of the new millennium?

“There are statements about UI recipients that are similar to statements about ‘welfare queens,’ and that shows a certain lack of sympathy with the situation of the unemployed,” said Wayne Vroman, an economist at the Urban Institute who specializes in unemployment insurance. “Any human endeavor has people who game the system, but to attribute this as a massive kind of rip-off by the unemployed doesn’t really match reality.”

The reality is that the economy isn’t creating jobs fast enough to re-employ the 8 million-plus who lost jobs in the Great Recession of 2007-09.

“People blame the chronically unemployed when, in fact, they’re the victim of a much larger economic calamity that’s beyond their control,” said Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration.

Some critics blame unemployment benefits as incentives for sloth. During his 2010 campaign, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett told a reporter, “The jobs are there, but if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there.”

Corbett’s comments, which he later said weren’t meant to be insensitive, still resonate with Ahniva Williams, who counsels jobless people for the nonprofit Unemployment Information Center in Philadelphia.

“It enraged a lot of my members who were actively looking for work, volunteering, going to school, taking classes and going to job fairs,” Williams said.

However, Mary Wilson, the owner of Michel Concrete in Springfield, Ill., said her experience with two long-term unemployed workers was an eye-opener.

Last year, Wilson hired a dispatcher and a truck driver, both unemployed more than six months. The driver quit after several weeks, claiming a number of minor grievances: She couldn’t wear shorts on the job, felt unsafe while driving and didn’t like her co-workers.

“Her comment was ‘it just wasn’t worth it to have to come into work when I was dissatisfied.’ She would rather not work. She said that,” Wilson recalled. The state ultimately cut the woman’s unemployment benefits after investigating her case.

Wilson’s dispatcher worked only a few days. He wanted to be fired, Wilson said, because he had a lawn-service business that paid him in cash. If he’d received a paycheck from Wilson, he would have lost his unemployment benefits, which he was collecting illegally.

“He kept trying to give me reasons to let him go and I wasn’t catching on,” Wilson said. “He was working the system.”

Roughly 10 percent of jobless benefits go to undeserving recipients such as Wilson’s former dispatcher, said James Sherk, senior policy analyst for labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. Sherk said conservative efforts to revamp benefit programs were more about cost savings than making a value judgment on the work ethics of recipients.

“It’s not that people who get unemployment insurance are bad, lazy bums. That’s just silly. It’s much more about ‘Let’s make sure it goes where it should be going and crack down on abusers,’” Sherk said.

Extended unemployment insurance has been the saving grace for millions of people who lost jobs in the recession through no fault of their own. The benefit programs — which are run by the states but financed by federal and state taxes on wages — kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009.

Traditionally, states fattened their unemployment insurance funds when the economy was strong in order to pay more benefits when a recession hit. But only 17 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had enough unemployment money to weather the economic downturn when the recession began in December 2007. That’s because states had cut employer payroll taxes too much.

That poor planning, coupled with record job losses in the recession, led states to borrow more than $40 billion from the federal government to keep their jobless benefits flowing. To help replenish the depleted funds, employer jobless taxes rose by an average of 34 percent in 41 states last year, mainly because of mandatory hikes. But even those increases weren’t enough to bring most state programs back to solvency.

So states that are struggling to pay back their federal loans and avoid costly interest penalties are left with two solutions: raising employer taxes further or reducing benefits.

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