Tag Archives: unemployment

Obama, Can You Spare a Job?

One of the latest attacks on Obama’s failed policies claims that his economic stimulus created few jobs at exorbitant cost to taxpayers: $278,000 per job, to be exact. Fuzzy math aside, what these attacks omit to mention is that the stimulus, like all else these days, operated under the conservative creed that everything has to be done through the private sector. This ethos, firmly embraced by Obama
himself, prevents the government from taking the far more efficient route of simply employing people, which might have created many more good jobs for the same price tag.

Had Obama had heeded FDR’s experience during the Great Depression, we could have put unemployed people to work rebuilding American infrastructure—bridges, tunnels, railroads, roads–not to mention restoring and shoring up wetlands and carrying out other environmental projects. That’s what Roosevelt
famously did
with his Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation
Corps.

Such an initiative might conceivably have been possible, on some scale, prior to the midterm elections. But with the gridlock in Congress and diminishing confidence in the President and government, any such course now is hard to imagine. Instead, the austerity imposed by the debts deal will likely further impede any chance at real job growth–as Roosevelt himself found in 1937 when he briefly adopted austerity measures, only to see falling unemployment rates spike once again.

But even at this dismal stage, there are nonetheless a handful of realistic projects that ought to appeal to some fiscally minded conservatives as well as to Democrats.

Jonathan Alter, who is a historian of FDR’s New Deal as well as a journalist, has promoted an idea that involves allowing states to “convert their unemployment insurance payments from checks sent to the jobless into vouchers that can be used by companies to hire workers.” The amount of the unemployment checks would in effect become subsidies to the employers, so that “for instance, a position paying $40,000 might cost employers only $20,000, thereby encouraging them to hire…If a mere 10 percent of unemployed Americans persuaded employers to accept such vouchers, more than a million people would find work with no new spending beyond some administrative costs.”

Alter believes the plan, first suggested by Alan Khazei, a Democratic candidate for the Senate in Massachusetts, might appeal to “a Republican House  that loves the concept of voucher.” But so far there’s been no interest from either Congress or the Obama Administration.

Another option is the already much-discussed German experience with the short work week. As Kevin A. Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explained this scheme back in 2009.

Firms that face a temporary decrease in demand avoid shedding employees by cutting hours instead. If hours and wages are reduced by 10 percent or more, the government pays workers 60 percent of their lost salary. This encourages firms to use across-the-board reductions of hours instead of layoffs. Here’s how the program works.

A firm facing the challenges of the recession cuts Angela’s hours from 35 to 25 per week, thus reducing her weekly salary to 714 euros from 1,000 euros. Angela does not work for the firm during those hours. As part of its short-work program, the government now pays Angela 171 euros–60 percent of her lost salary. Most important, she still has a job. Effectively, the government is giving her unemployment insurance for the 10 hours a week that she is not employed.

Senator Jack Reed and  Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro have put this program into legislation which so far has  gone nowhere, with only a handful of co-sponsors. This despite the fact that as Dean  Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out: “Twenty  one  states (including California and New  York) already have short-time compensation as an option under their
unemployment insurance system. In these states a governmental structure already  exists to support work sharing, although there would have to be changes to make  the system more user friendly so as to increase take-up rates.”

Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post last week pointed to another way of immediately putting people to work, which harkens back to the idea of rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure:

Over the next decade, the federal government is slated to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building roads, schools, airports, trolley  lines and airport terminals, modernizing the air traffic control system, replacing computer systems and buying planes, ships, tanks, trucks and cars.  Moving up some of that spending from years 8, 9 and 10 to years 1, 2 and 3 won’t cost any more in the long run, or increase the long-term deficit any more, but could sure help put a floor under the economy in the short run. For those worried about pork, the actual spending decisions could be left to an independent Infrastructure Bank.

To spur private investment in equipment and research, the government could immediately allow companies of all sizes to deduct 100 percent of such expenses made in the next three years, rather than “depreciating” them over many years. That incentive to invest now will increase the deficit in the short run but have little or no impact on the long-term deficit.

As Suzy Khimm reports in the Washington Post, “The question of infrastructure funding will come up as soon as Congress returns from its August recess,” since “a bill reauthorizing  spending on surface transportation — which would help build roads, highways,  and the like — is set to expire in September. There’s a big gap between the House GOP proposal, which would slash federal spending to 35 percent less than Fiscal 2009 levels, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s two-year plan to spend $55 billion a year. Boxer’s proposal would require revenue beyond what’s in the Highway Trust Fund, which receives money from the gas tax, promising yet another fight over which will be better for the economy — reducing the deficit or Keynesian spending on infrastructure.”

We all know how that fight is likely to turn out. And as Jonathan Alter points out, even these modest approaches to job creation call for an attitude of what Roosevelt called “bold, persistent experimentation” on the part of the government–and the leadership to back it up. And as we’ve seen all too clearly, Obama is no FDR.

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Obama’s Lifeline: For a Change, Government Spending That Actually Helps the People Who Need It Most

Republicans took to the Sunday morning news shows to express their “concern” about parts of the stimulus package presented by the Obama administration last week. House Minority Leader John Boehner declared that he would vote no “if it’s the plan I see today”–a pretty idle threat, since even if he takes his entire party with him, the Democrats still have nearly an 80-vote margin. In the Senate, however, two Republican votes are needed to create a filibuster-proof majority, which might at least slow the package down and could force some compromises.

There’s good reason for the Republican resistance. While it makes numerous concessions to favored conservative approaches–lots of public-private partnerships that will allow the private sector to cash in, tax cuts for businesses and the middle class, and no immediate end to the Bush tax cuts (which will expire on their own in 2010)-the $820 billion stimulus package also includes some dramatic increases in support for the nation’s social welfare programs.

With this package, Obama begins the process of reversing cutbacks initiated by Reagan and carried forward by the two Bushes, with some help from Clinton’s welfare “reform.” There may still be plenty of holes, but with this plan, the new government confirms that has some responsibility for providing a safety net for its poor and disabled, its children and elderly. To see the magnitude of the shift, it is only necessary to glance at the last budget drawn up by President Bush, for fiscal year 2009: In the midst of the growing recession, it had yet more cuts to the social welfare system, reducing already inadequate health and feeding programs for the most vulnerable Americans.

Here are some of Obama’s initiatives–not quite the New Deal, but quite a new deal compared to what we’ve grown used to over the past 30 years:

  • As unemployment grows, more and more people lose their health insurance and turn to Medicaid. State budgets already are in desperate straits, and can’t possibly shoulder this added burden. Obama would pump federal money into state Medicaid budgets as well into the program providing for health insurance for children.
  • In addition, Obama wants to shore up existing health insurance coverage for people losing jobs by extending COBRA and underwriting part of its cost through tax rebates. COBRA is a program that enables people losing their jobs to continue their health insurance if they pay for it. Obama wants the federal government to partially subsidize these payments, and also gives some low-income unemployed people access to Medicaid.
  • The president’s plan proposes to extend unemployment benefits through December 2009 and increase weekly unemployment insurance benefits by $25.
  • The stimulus package would incresasing food stamp benefits for the 30 million people now in the program, and provide support for food banks, school lunch programs, and the WIC program that provides for mothers and infants.
  • Obama’s plan would give 7.5 million blind, disabled, and aged Americans an immediate $450 by increasing-on a temporary basis–Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Expanding Medicaid: A Positive Move on Entitlements

There has been much speculation that Obama’s promise to make substantive change to entitlements could presages the further erosion of the already tattered safety net’s coverage. (I’ve engaged in some of this speculation myself). But while the term “entitlement reform” has long been misused by Conservatives to mean “let the poor people and the geezers make it on their own,” there’s ample room to change things for the better, as well. 

On this front, a report in Saturday’s Washington Post is encouraging. The article reports that the Democratic Congress and Obama administrtation are pondering two big changes:

The first would allow the state to sign up literally all unemployed people on Medicaid with the federal government picking up the total cost. The second would provide subsidies so that people could be covered under COBRA, the law which allows people who have been laid off the right to buy health benefits they once got through their jobs.

A major reason for proposing such regulations is that the 7.2 percent unemployment rate has added 2.6 million people to the 45 million already uninsured.

These expansions would follow the health insurance legislation now going through Congress that provides health insurance for poor and working class children. The House voted for this program and the key Senate committee has also approved it. Bush steadily opposes the plan–but that obstruction will happily soon be gone.

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Jim Jubak on How Wall Street Screwed Geezers: Part II

As I noted in my last post, there are millions of older Americans who don’t have time to “wait” for the market–and their own retirment funds–to recover from the current recession. Some of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we’ll just have to keep working indefinitely. But as MSN’s Jim Jubak points out, it isn’t as simple as that.

Everyone I talk to glibly says, “Well, I’ll just have to work longer.” At what jobs? In an economy in which companies regularly find ways to replace higher-paid older workers with younger employees, most people won’t be able to stay at their current jobs. And in an economy that is exporting its meat-and-potatoes manufacturing jobs and their higher wages and generating mostly lower-paying jobs to replace them, post-retirement workers are going to be competing with a horde of anxious younger workers for even ill-paying, no-benefit, part-time work.

We need Washington to wake up and realize that, yes, we need to create jobs to pull us out of the current economic slowdown but we also need to create jobs to fix the holes blown in the retirement plans of tens of millions of Americans by this financial crisis. We need not just jobs now but a coordinated national effort—public and private—to create long-term job growth for decades to come.

Jubak’s argument about the absolute necessity of job creation to any recovery is a sound one. But even he admits that it’s already too late for some of us.

We also need to find a way to help those people who reach retirement age but who are in no condition to keep working. Working longer isn’t a solution for someone who isn’t physically or mentally able to work.

Don’t hold your breath while waiting for this “help” to arrive. With a shrinking economy and a growing geezer population, longtime opponents of “entitlements” like Social Security are already gearing up to oppose any further government support for old folks facing hard times.