Why the Unemployed Are the "Forgotten Man" of 2012

May 31, 2012Tim Price

Instead of finding a solution to the jobs crisis, today’s politicians are making life harder for the unemployed.

The “Forgotten Man” may be most commonly associated with Amity Shlaes’s book of the same name, an alternate history in which the New Deal made the Great Depression worse. But back in the spring of 1932, while campaigning against incumbent President Herbert Hoover, FDR invoked the phrase in a now-famous radio address. In it, he called for a policy response to the Great Depression that would “rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but indispensable units of economic power,” policies that would “build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” The un-Shlaesed among us will recognize that the programs he launched once elected did exactly this, lifting up millions of Americans who had fallen to the bottom of the economic ladder – much to the chagrin of those still clinging jealously to the top rungs. But it seems there’s no such help coming to today’s forgotten men and women, the millions of unemployed Americans who our policymakers alternately overlook or actively punish for their misfortune.

It probably sounds strange to say that the unemployed have been forgotten when the state of the economy is the centerpiece of this year’s elections. But while politicians on both sides of the aisle talk a lot about the economy and jobs in the abstract, they’re easily distracted by minutiae and rarely seem to give much thought to the unemployed as living, breathing people. President Obama’s current economic plan seems to consist of reminding voters that Bain Capital once bankrupted a steel mill in Kansas, while Mitt Romney uses 8 percent unemployment as a cudgel against the incumbent but offers no solutions of his own besides something something tax cuts blah blah confidence.

Meanwhile, as Shaila Dewan reported in the New York Times this week, “Hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans are receiving their final unemployment checks sooner than they expected, even though Congress renewed extended benefits until the end of the year.” Over 5 million Americans fall into the category of long-term unemployed, meaning they have been out of work for over six months. Yet by next month, Dewan notes that over half a million of them will have prematurely lost their unemployment benefits this year thanks to cutbacks at the federal level.

At the same time, state governments are forcing new applicants to jump through more and more hoops to get out of paying them the benefits they deserve. Though 27 percent of all unemployed Americans received state benefits last year, Florida Governor and Observer-lookalike Rick Scott cut the number in his state to 15 percent last year by imposing particularly onerous requirements. The most extreme of these efforts was his attempt to subject unemployment applicants to a mandatory drug test, which was blocked (for now) by a federal judge. Florida may not give you your unemployment benefits, but by God, you’re going to give the Sunshine State your urine.

Given how many Americans are out of work, they would seem to form a natural constituency for politicians eager to win over swing voters. (That sounds cynical, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that altruism isn’t a major factor here. I know, it’s a stretch.) Yet instead of courting their support, policymakers are treating them like misbehaving puppies who need to be whacked over the nose with a newspaper. What gives? In part, this is due to conservatives’ knee-jerk opposition to government intervention and their belief that UI benefits can prolong high unemployment by discouraging recipients from seeking work. Studies have shown that UI benefits may be responsible for a fraction of a percentage point of our current unemployment rate, but Mike Konczal has a good rundown of why extending them provides a net economic benefit anyway. Aside from these policy differences, politicians in general just aren’t responsive to the needs and desires of anyone except for their richest constituents and Super PAC funders, who aren’t very concerned about whether some laid off factory worker in Ohio can feed his kids this week.

But there’s more to this conservative opposition than ideology or apathy. Cutting back on benefits is one thing, but why should they go out of their way to denigrate and humiliate the jobless? Mark Schmitt argues that Republicans found themselves adrift after they succeeded in passing welfare reform, since the “specter of the non-working poor could no longer be reliably evoked, and nothing with a similar power to divide voters has emerged to take its place.” But the economic crisis has proven to be a goldmine, providing them with a new underclass of jobless Americans whom they can portray as modern-day welfare queens. Look at these lazy slobs buying flat screens and diamond necklaces with their lavish unemployment benefits while the rest of us slave away at our hedge funds to make ends meet! “Much like arguments blaming the financial crisis on ACORN, Fannie Mae, and the push for low-income homeownership,” Mark notes, this approach “shifts the responsibility for unemployment onto the unemployed themselves.” For many politicians, this is the perfect one-two punch: it gets them the votes they need to win office, and once they’re in office, it takes away their responsibility to actually do anything about the biggest problem facing the country.

Back in 1932, FDR told voters that the Hoover administration had either “forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.” Today’s Republicans, heirs to the Hoover legacy, would also like to obfuscate the crisis and make us forget the real circumstances of its victims. They know that if Americans see it clearly, they’ll also recognize that the only moral and practical response is one that provides more and better government aid rather than less. If progressive policymakers stop playing dead and start fighting back hard against these cuts to unemployment benefits, they may be surprised by how many troops they can rally to their side.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.


Empty pocket image via Shutterstock.

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