With the end of the legislative session looming, here’s a look at some of the key working family issues still on the congressional agenda.
The Republican shutdown of the government in October cost the economy 120,000 jobs and just under $24 billion. The agreement to end the shutdown funded the government through Jan. 15, but at the sequestration levels that have strangled job growth and slowed the economy, and included a debt ceiling increase through Feb. 7.
The deal also called for a House–Senate budget conference committee to try to reach a longer term budget agreement by Dec. 13. House Republicans are continuing their demands to cut Social security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with tax breaks for corporations.
The AFL-CIO is calling for the repeal of the sequester, which could create nearly 800,000 jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Also lawmakers must oppose any cuts in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits, including means-testing or reducing annual cost-of-living increases by moving to the so-called “chained CPI.” Social Security benefits should be improved, not cut; working people and retirees need more economic security, not less.
Instead of further austerity measures, Congress should invest in jobs and education by raising revenue from Wall Street and the wealthiest 1%. Repealing tax subsidies for sending jobs overseas, for example, would generate $583 billion over 10 years.
But this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) broke his promise to hold a House vote on immigration reform legislation. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called Boehner’s action “unconscionable” and said:
The AFL-CIO will not give up this fight until comprehensive immigration reform is passed in the Congress. If Boehner’s House Republicans continue to block the way, we intend to make it clear that the Republican Party will pay a price at the ballot box for ignoring America’s growing immigrant community.
Earlier this month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed (64–32) the historic Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA). The bill would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, 29 states allow workers to be fired for being gay and 33 allow workers to be fired for being transgender.
But even though the Senate version passed with bipartisan support and the House ENDA bill includes Republican co-sponsors, Boehner again caved to the extremist tea party wing and said he would not allow a vote on the bill.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, the Senate is expected to take up a bill (S. 460) to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 over three years and index it to inflation. It also would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which is currently $2.13 per hour, to 70% of the regular minimum wage.
Among workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase, 88% are adults older than 20; 55% percent are women; and their earnings account for half of their family’s entire income.
Even though 80% percent of the public, including 62% of Republican voters, support increasing the minimum wage, according to a recent poll conducted by Hart Research, Boehner likely will block any House vote.
If Congress doesn’t extend the current extended federal unemployment insurance (UI) program by the end of the year, 1.3 million jobless workers will be cut off from UI the week of Dec. 28. Nearly 1.9 million more would lose the extended UI during the first half of 2014 as their state benefits run out. The current program, last extended in January 2013, provides up to 47 weeks of federal benefits in states with the highest unemployment rates on top of the normal 26 weeks that most states provide.
With the economy still 2 million jobs in the hole after the Great Recession and with 37% of the unemployed out of work for more than six months, inaction would be disastrous.
Last month the House passed a bill (H.R. 2374) that would delay and could ultimately thwart the U.S. Department of Labor’s effort to protect workers’ retirement security. The Labor Department wants to close loopholes and update the rule that protects workers from deceptive or abusive practices when they seek investment advice about their retirement savings.
In a letter to House members, AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director William Samuel says, “The intent behind this bill is to delay the commission rule and thereby also block [the Labor Department] from carrying out its statutorily required responsibilities.” He adds:
This bill affects all workers who are trying to save for their retirement. The primary way most working people invest in the capital markets is with their retirement savings—frequently their biggest financial asset. They are counting on making the most of their money when they seek investment advice; they are counting on that advice being free from conflicts of interest. That is what is at stake here.
But after eight Republicans crossed party lines to end a filibuster against Richard Griffin, the former National Labor Relations Board member nominated by Obama to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel, the nomination process once again ground to a halt.
On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked an up or down vote on Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), the first African American to be nominated to chair the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt is also the first sitting member of Congress to be rejected by the Senate since 1843.
Republicans also have vowed to block all three of President Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. On Oct. 31, Republicans prevented an up or down vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett, and on Nov. 12, they voted to continue the filibuster against the nomination of Nina Pillard. Republican leadership is also expected to block the nomination of the third Obama nominee, Robert Wilkins, who is currently sitting on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The District of Columbia Circuit is considered the most important court beneath the U.S. Supreme Court because most cases dealing with federal regulations and federal enforcement agencies can be appealed there, including decisions and regulations issued by the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Moreover, the sectors that grew are those that have the lowest wages:
Over the past 12 months, the leisure and hospitality sector has added 21,500 jobs, more than any other sector.
[N.C. Justice Center public policy analyst Allan] Freyer said that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that those jobs pay an average of $8.30 an hour.
“That says the state’s growth opportunities are in ultra-low-wage jobs,” Freyer said. “That’s not the direction we want to be going.”
In recent months, Gov. McCrory and his allies enacted enormous cuts to unemployment insurance, which Bill Rowe of the N.C. Justice Center called “one of the most radical, is not the most radical proposals in the country.” They also passed a tax plan that lowers income tax and corporate while slicing the earned income tax credit for struggling families.
Gov. McCrory claimed both measures would help “job creation.” The same refrain was used by Gov. Scott Walker for his actions in Wisconsin to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers and his own tax plan that ended the state earned income tax credit. Wisconsin is also experiencing economic woes, also falling behind the rest of the country on employment.
What both governors are ignoring is that we know the path to prosperity: higher wages, public investment in infrastructure and education, and a tax plan that asks the rich to pay their fair share. Not the exact opposite.
But as McCrory’s recent voter suppression law shows, he’s not really interested in what the people think. He’s more interested in following the Walker model of ALEC-inspired, pro-corporate, anti-worker governance. In both North Carolina and Wisconsin, hundreds have gone to jail in recent weeks for protesting the state’s leadership.
More than 3,000 people crowded in and around the North Carolina state capitol building in Raleigh as part of the eighth “Moral Monday” protest. It was the largest yet. 120 people, including NC AFL-CIO President James Andrews, were arrested.
“Moral Mondays” started two months ago when faith leaders showed up to protest the extreme agenda of Gov. Pat McCrory and his allies in the legislature: massive cuts to unemployment insurance, reduction of early voting, new draconian voter ID requirements, hydraulic fracking, denial of Medicaid expansion, a new regressive tax plan, and more.
Like Scott Walker’s agenda in Wisconsin, McCrory and his allies are taking their lead from a wealthy donor, right-wing billionaire Art Pope. Except in North Carolina, McCrory has gone one step further and named Pope as his deputy budget director. Imagine David or Charles Koch running your state’s financial policy.
As the weeks have passed so have the crowds. Acts of civil disobedience have lead to over 600 arrests over the eight week period.
Before his act of civil disobedience and arrest, NC AFL-CIO President James Andrews lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.” Many students and other young people in the rotunda without a historical connection to the labor movement may have been hearing those words for the first time.
Last year, thousands of you wrote and called your members of Congress to stop a cruel and selfish piece of legislation from passing. You won that battle, but the bill is back.
H.R. 3630, introduced by Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), extends federal unemployment insurance for a full year…with many, many strings attached. The bill called for slashing UI benefits by more than half in some of the highest unemployment states, allowed mandatory drug testing, denied benefits to those without a GED or diploma and even forced applicants to pay for their own reemployment services. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has a full analysis of this disgusting bill.
UI applicants, many of them hardworking Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, don’t deserve this kind of humiliation. Congress needs to renew unemployment benefits for the full year, as they have always done: no cuts, no tricks, and no barriers to benefits.
We were able to defeat this legislation last December, when House Republicans relented and signed a clean two-month extension of UI and the payroll tax cut. But now that the clock is once again running out, House Republicans are using these ridiculous restrictions on unemployment benefits as bait in a sick political game to extract concessions.
Democrats, however, rejected efforts by House conservatives to require beneficiaries to enroll in GED classes or permit states to require drug tests as conditions of getting unemployment.
The Democratic proposal would allow unemployed people to receive a maximum 93 weeks of benefits in states with the highest jobless rates, rather than the 99 weeks permitted now. Republicans want to cut 20 weeks from the maximum benefit, though as a practical matter, falling jobless rates mean the maximum benefit would drop to 59 weeks under their plan.
Translation: Democrats are now negotiating away six weeks’ worth of benefits to try to get stubborn Republicans to drop the drug testing and other draconian measures.
But what happens when Republicans say no to 93 weeks? Do the Democrats counter with even more cuts? Will they just keep cutting until Republicans get the cuts that that they wanted all along?
What makes this even worse is that the average duration of unemployment is higher than it has ever been since the Labor Department started recording in 1948: 39.7 weeks. That’s the average. No other recession in the last fifty years even compares. That House Republicans are doing everything they can to cut unemployment benefits now, in 2012, after extending them every time the measure came up under the previous administration, is cruel, selfish, and nakedly partisan.
More than 3.3 million unemployed workers will be cut off from their vital lifelines by June 2 if the program is not extended. Millions of working families and local businesses will suffer from the lack of revenue at a time where the economy is just starting to recover.
The $900 billion deal to extend all of the Bush tax cuts represents a substantial retreat for the president on a major campaign promise, a major victory for the Republican Party, and, let’s face it, complete obliteration of the notion that the deficit matters politically as anything other than a blunt instrument to wield against the welfare state. The deficit is an absolute emergency when it comes to making sure all Americans have health care, but an afterthought when it comes to cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
So, was this worth it? I’d still say no, although it’s better than what I expected over the weekend. It still greatly increases the chances of the Bush tax cuts being made permanent — especially because the front-loading of the stimulative stuff actually worsens Obama’s 2012 electoral prospects.
Overall, enough sweetener has been added to diminish, but not eliminate, the bitterness of the disappointment.
The long-term unemployed are on the verge of dropping off the political radar entirely. This potential agreement would probably seal their hopeless fate. A 13-month extension of the current tiers is likely the last we’ll get for the unemployed out of this government.
Who gets what? For Republicans, that’s easy: a two-year extension on all Bush-era tax rates, regardless of income. Making matters slightly worse, the White House also agreed to include a deal on the estate tax, raising the exemption to $5 million per person and a 35% maximum rate, and a two-year extension on a capital gains top rate of 15%.
But then there’s the flip-side. The president secured a 13-month extension of aid for the long-term unemployed, reportedly his top priority. The deal also includes a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, which will give workers a boost in their paychecks; an expanded earned-income tax credit; the continuation of a college-tuition tax credit; and new opportunities for businesses to write off the cost of some equipment purchases.
Obama was able to secure help for the middle class and the unemployed; Republicans were able to keep breaks for the wealthy. In other words, both sides got to fight for their natural constituencies.
I was talking to one well-known writer-activist last night who said he thought it was odd that the UI extension was being “shrugged off” by so many. I agree. I think a lot of the online bloggery outrage is being fueled by people who don’t have a visceral understanding of what it’s like to be at the end of your financial rope. (Class matters.)
With this president, with these Republicans, at this time, I think this is approximately as good as it can get. There will be changes before the deal is approved (it would be swell, for instance, if Bernie Sanders held out for the 99ers), but this is about what it’ll look like.
And for the people who can breathe, knowing they can survive for another 13 months, that’s a good thing.
The President reached a deal with GOP leadership Monday evening concerning the Bush-era tax cuts and unemployment benefits. This blog has spoken extensively about the futility of extending tax cuts for the super-rich during the Great Recession, as well as other, more productive places that money might go (think education or clean energy). But those days of dreaming are over because the deal extends Bush-era tax cuts for everyone for the next two years.
The good news is that the deal also supports extending unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed for another 13 months. If passed, extending these benefits would not come up for debate again until February 2012 when hopefully, with much work and investment, our country will be boasting a much lower unemployment rate.
Also included in the deal is a 2% employee payroll tax cut, a revival of the estate tax cut (with exemptions up to $10 million for couples), and several tax credits aimed at working families were extended. These tax credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which were all scheduled to expire this year.
Shaillagh Murray of the Washington Post reported that the President is urging Democrats to support the agreement in Congress, “In brief remarks Monday evening, Obama said he was disappointed that the deal would extend breaks for the wealthiest households, but he warned Democrats not to make good on threats to allow all the cuts to expire, as an expression of the party’s opposition to preserving the top-rate cuts. “Sympathetic as I am to those who would prefer a fight to compromise, it would be the wrong thing to do,” the president said. “The American people didn’t send us here to wage symbolic battles.”
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post agrees, “it’s something of a hopeful sign: The White House sat in a room with Republicans and Democrats and managed to negotiate an actual compromise. The final deal includes some things that Democrats will like and some things they won’t like, and it includes some things Republicans will like and some things they won’t like. But it’s a deal, and a better one than many — myself included — thought they’d reach.”
At least with the holidays just around the corner, the long-term unemployed are not left worrying where there next check is coming from.
The economic costs—costs not just to the people directly affected but to the entire American economy—of not renewing unemployment insurance will be dire. According to the Council of Economic Advisors,
The council’s report, which details how a failure to extend the aid would affect people on a state-by-state level, says nearly seven million Americans could lose coverage by the end of next year and that 600,000 jobs are at stake. Goolsbee contended the gross domestic product would be six-tenths of a percent point lower in December of next year if the benefits are not extended, slowing the nation’s recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
According to an earlier report by the National Employment Law Project, some two million workers nationally could lose benefits in December if they are not extended, an estimate the CEA also uses. The U.S. Joint Economic Committee estimates failure to extend the benefits program “would drain the economy of $80 billion in purchasing power and result in the loss of over one million jobs over the next year.”
600,000 jobs at stake and a dip in the GDP. Never mind the millions of working families who will lose a lifeline just in time for Christmas, in an economy in which there are five jobseekers for every job opening.
But Republicans in Congress are still holding those families, and those jobs, and our economy, hostage to tax cuts for millionaires and their party’s overarching desire to destroy the economy enough to ensure that President Obama won’t be reelected. It’s appalling.
Well, unemployment insurance runs out right away for 800,000 people if Congress doesn’t vote to renew it. And Congress doesn’t appear ready to move on that, so that’s an awful lot of people losing the small check that’s keeping them afloat while they look for work.
There’s Robert Pugh, in Santa Barbara, California, who earned his MBA after a long career as a chef and found work as a financial analyst in small business and commercial banking, only to be laid off last June. He will lose his unemployment benefits next month—and, after that, his apartment and health insurance. There’s Robert Horvath of Glenview, Illinois, also laid off in June after a career in banking. Of his $1,500 in monthly benefits, due to expire in December, he needs $1,200 just for health insurance. At 58, he has applied for all kinds of jobs and received no offers. There’s Sharron Tetrault from Mount Vernon, New York, who has worked as an event planner for nonprofits for fourteen years, but since being laid off in January has struggled daily to find work. She’ll be cut off unemployment insurance in the coming weeks if Congress fails to renew the programs, “and it’s only a matter of time before my phone gets shut off,” she says. “How will employers call me?”
These are not irresponsible losers. They are victims of disastrous economic conditions. And the nation will “save” nothing by condemning them to poverty and homelessness. Rather, we will see a downward spiral in which yet more jobs and more tax revenue are lost.
In fact, just as the House torpedoed the federal programs last week, economic experts, including orthodox fiscal conservatives, begged to differ. A new Department of Labor study, commissioned by the Bush administration and co-authored by the chief economic adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, found that the federal programs had injected enough into the economy to reduce the unemployment rate by 1.2 points. The Congressional Budget Office has ranked unemployment insurance as the most effective stimulus to the economy, generating $1.90 in economic activity for every $1 the government spends.
The poverty rate increased from 13.2% to 14.3% between 2008 and 2009, representing an additional 3.7 million people living in poverty for a total of 43.6 million in poverty in 2009. The poverty rate for children was 20.7% in 2009, representing 15.5 million kids living in poverty. In 2009, over one-third (35.5%) of all people living in poverty were children.
The poverty rate for working-age people (18-64 years old) hit 12.9% in 2009, the highest rate in nearly 50 years.
The official poverty threshold is defined as an annual income of $21,954 for a family of four (that’s $422 per week), or $11,161 for an individual. But, as Gould reports, the poor are getting poorer.
While 14.3% of all Americans were living in poverty last year, a record 6.3% were in so-called deep poverty, earning less than half the official poverty threshold, or subsistence rate, according to the new data on poverty released last week by the Census Bureau.
This sizable share of the American population falling below half the poverty line is particularly notable given that even the official poverty threshold – an annual income of $21,954 for a family of four – is widely considered insufficient to pay for life’s most basic essentials like food and housing. To fall below half the poverty line, a family of four would have an annual income of less than about $11,000.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced yesterday that during 2009, 3.3 million people, including 1 million children, were kept out of poverty with income support provided through unemployment insurance (UI). (emphasis added)
This analysis, which comes one day before the Census Bureau will release updated poverty figures (for 2008), examines seven of the recovery act’s provisions — two improvements in unemployment insurance, three tax credits for working families, an increase in food stamps, and a one-time payment for retirees, veterans, and people with disabilities — and finds that they alone are preventing more than 6 million Americans from falling below the poverty line and are reducing the severity of poverty for 33 million more. Those 6 million people include more than 2 million children and over 500,000 seniors.
Those numbers are conservative, says CBPP, and don’t include the impact of other Recovery Act programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) emergency jobs programs, which employ 250,000 otherwise unemployed parents and youth. Those TANF programs are set to expire this week unless Congress acts to extend them.
Without the expanded state and federal unemployment insurance benefits, the number of Americans living in poverty in 2009 would have increased by 7 million — nearly twice the actual increase. And without other key provisions in the Recovery Act, that number would have been nearly 10 million. Yet, all of those programs are under assault, threatened by legislative expiration unless they are extended.
As the report from NELP concludes:
Given the important role of unemployment benefits in keeping working families out of poverty during the recession, it’s crucial that Congress keep the Recovery Act’s remaining measures in place. The current federal extensions are set to expire on November 30, 2010, ending income support for millions unless they are reauthorized. If we allow these programs to expire, millions will be subjected to preventable poverty—hardships that will have immediate and lasting impacts for families and children.
Yesterday’s bleak release, showing a rise in poverty over the course of the past year, is yet another piece of evidence pointing to the need for Congress to take action on expanded unemployment benefits as well as focused measures to create and grow jobs.
This kind of cockamamie pseudo-science would just be laughable if it weren’t a potentially dangerous threat to the survival of millions of unemployed Americans. You can bet that bank lobbyists and their conservative cronies are circulating this report and others like it to gin up opposition to extending unemployment benefits.
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal editorial, titled Incentives Not to Work, which blames long-term unemployment on extended jobless benefits, amounts to Wall Street’s declaration of war on America’s unemployed.
Conveniently ignoring a logical foundation of rational thought — that correlation does not imply causation — the Journal posits that because there are extended unemployment benefits, there is more long-term unemployment.
… sure enough, the share of unemployed workers who don’t have a job for more than 26 weeks has steadily increased, reaching a record 44.1% in March. The average spell of unemployment is now 31 weeks, even though the economy is once again creating more new jobs than it is losing. Democrats are slowly converting unemployment insurance into a welfare program.
By extension, they might as well say that because of extended unemployment benefits, employers are more reluctant to hire.
The Wall Street Journal’s editors have the incredible gall to blame record long-term unemployment levels on unemployment insurance payments. Not the Great Recession, caused by Wall Street’s financial train wreck. Not the lack of available jobs, caused by Wall Street’s financial train wreck. But on unemployment insurance payments, made necessary by Wall Street’s financial train wreck.
After demanding, and getting, its nearly trillion dollar bailout, Wall Street continues to extract billions in excessive payouts and bonuses for profiting at the expense of the rest of the economy and everyone else. With unabashed temerity they object to the meager jobless benefits being paid to those unfortunate enough to have been thrown out of work as a result of Wall Street’s avarice.
And now the Journal’s editors urge Republicans in Congress to stop opposing extended benefits simply when they “add to the deficit” and start opposing them completely.
I wonder how long it will take for some Republicans in Congress to start reading their lines from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal editorial.