Sunday, March 1, 2009

Governors vs. Unemployed Workers

Kick ’em while they’re down.

That’s the attitude of governors of nine states, including most of the Deep South, who say they will refuse to expand unemployment benefits even though the federal government is paying for it.

The temporary expansion of unemployment benefits, paid by the federal government, is a routine move in times of unusually high unemployment. And the governors appear to be opposing this move on this occasion for purely political reasons. The specific reasons remain unclear, as none of the governors has made a statement that directly addresses the issue, but we can speculate.

It seems to me that, unless proved otherwise, the governors must see the recession as an opportunity to further weaken the financial position of middle-class families. What better way to hurt workers than to cut off unemployment benefits after they have lost their jobs in a time when a new job is especially hard to find?

This strategy of keeping workers from becoming confident of their place in the economy has been a staple of conservative politics in the United States since 1981 when Ronald Reagan took a series of actions in his first few weeks in the White House to trigger a recession. The Reagan Recession kept unemployment high for three years and pulled the rug out from under a wave of political activism among young workers.

Now some politicians seem to think it’s time to try that trick again. But they may be being too transparent about it this time. Unemployed workers are up in arms at being used as pawns in a political game.

One of the more polite commentaries is titled “Texas Governor Considering Political Suicide.” That is surely overstating the case in a time when nearly 90 percent of workers still have a job, but it doesn’t seem like it to the voters who have just lost a job, or have seen a family member unemployed. As the New York Times reports, unemployed workers are taking this issue personally:

“It just seems unreasonable,” Mr. Kight said, “that when people probably need the help the most, that because of partisan activity, or partisan feelings, against the current new administration, that Perry is willing to sacrifice the lives of so many Texans that have been out of work in the last year.”

It might not seem fair, but that’s what can happen when you happen to be down and the people in power decide it’s time to kick ’em while they’re down.