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News Opinion Editorial

Help for the jobless [Editorial]

Senate Republicans blinked this week on the issue of unemployment benefits, but you can bet that their House counterparts won't be so easily swayed by compassion. At least that's what Democrats are counting on.

After legislation to resume long-term unemployment insurance benefits cleared a procedural hurdle on a 60-37 vote on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he'll only consider the measure if there are off-setting cuts in spending and the legislation "includes something to help put people back to work." In his mind, that translates into loosening federal regulations governing such things as the environment and workplace safety. Such conditions are likely to doom it in the House, assuming it gains final passage in the Senate, which is no sure thing.

The cost is relatively modest — $6.4 billion for the proposed three-month extension — but the impact is much greater for the estimated 1.3 million Americans who have exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits and would now would be eligible to receive an average of about $300 a week.

An extension ought to be a no-brainer. In times of high levels of unemployment, the federal government has repeatedly jumped in to extend benefits so that people can hold their lives together until they find work. The only difference this time is that high unemployment has lasted longer in the wake of what was a record-setting recession and slow economic recovery.

It was President George W. Bush who first proposed such an extension in the wake of the 2007 recession, and Congress continued to offer benefits until they were allowed to expire last month. Another extension should have been automatic and should not have required off-sets — although it also should not be that difficult to find $6.4 billion in savings elsewhere in the budget, particularly if it means simply closing one or two corporate tax loopholes. (Although if it requires cutting elsewhere in the federal budget, the economic stimulus effect of such benefits will be reduced, which would be unfortunate.)

But what's made this debate particularly ugly — and strongly suggests that finding off-sets won't be good enough for many in the GOP — is the repeated suggestion that unemployment benefits are themselves contributing to unemployment. Critics like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul claim that instead of a lifeline, the money is a disincentive to work.

That's pretty outrageous. The problem isn't a lack of job seekers, it's a lack of jobs. There is no better illustration of that than the example of the former Good Humor ice cream plant in Hagerstown that a group of dairy farmers is seeking to reopen. As of this week, organizers have received no fewer than 1,600 applications for several dozen blue-collar jobs.

Perhaps — although we doubt it — they would have received 3,000 or maybe 5,000 applications if we didn't have unemployment benefits. But it wouldn't mean more jobs, only more hardship for families without a paycheck of any kind. And experts say when unemployment benefits expire or are reduced, people become so discouraged they often stop looking for work entirely.

No wonder Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid see a partisan advantage in pressing the unemployment issue right now. The more Republicans show their disdain for the unemployed, the less interest voters will have in the failings of government-run health insurance websites. The half-dozen Republican senators who rallied to the cause at the last minute saw the writing on the wall, even if most in the party do not.

We don't begrudge conservatives their goal of long-term reductions in the federal deficit which, incidentally, fell by a whopping 37 percent in 2013, the first federal budget deficit to fall below 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product since 2008. But they have generally embraced policies that "redistribute" wealth, cutting federal programs that benefit the poor and middle class while preserving tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the very wealthy.

Cutting off the unemployed is exactly the wrong way to try to balance the budget — as it not only discourages people from seeking work but harms their families which, in turn, raises dependency and the cost of safety-net programs in the future. What the government ought to be focused on is job creation. As President Barack Obama observed, the unemployed aren't lazy but victims of the economic crisis, and any of us could be in the same shoes.

As a matter of principle, we don't think unemployment benefits should have to be "paid for," but if that's the only way the extension can gain support in the House, then the off-sets ought not to hurt the unemployed or working-class families generally. Better to ask more from those who can afford it than deny those who are just barely holding their lives together.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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