Friday, January 31, 2014

The Republican War Against the Long-Term Unemployed

(A WPA orchestra entertains flood victims in Memphis, Tennessee, 1937. As with most WPA projects, it was a win-win situation. Unemployed musicians had jobs, and victims of disaster could enjoy a brief reprieve from the devastation around them. During natural disasters, the WPA also provided shelters, emergency kitchens, restoration of utilities, post-disaster clean-up, and more. This type of action & morality, helping the unemployed while simultaneously providing services to those in need, is largely (or completely) absent in today's America. Today, such action & morality would be scolded as "socialism!!" And so, it seems, we have decided that a government that ignores those in need is better than a government that helps those in need. We have decided that the General Welfare Clause of the U.S. Constitution, unlike the Common Defense Clause, is something to be taken lightly. Image courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

If anything has been made crystal clear during the current Great Recession, it's that people devastated by economic calamity can expect zero help from Republican politicians. And from right-wing extremists, Americans in need can expect even worse: And endless torrent of insults. We've heard it all these past 5-6 years: "Leeches," "losers," "parasites," "moochers," "freeloaders," "takers," "lazy good-for-nothings," and more.

Interestingly though, the venom & vitriol from the political right goes silent when the conversation changes to Corporate America and the big financial institutions, even though these groups--unlike the long-term unemployed--have engaged in insider trading, mortgage & securities fraud, money laundering for drug cartels, interest rate rigging, bribery, accounting fraud, illegal foreclosures on active duty soldiers, and more. For some reason, the tidal wave of white collar crime & mischief that destroyed the economy, and facilitated the need for a massive government bailout of the banks, has been converted by the political right into a problem of "the unemployed are lazy." 

(FDR said he welcomed the hatred of greedy corporate types. But for Americans who wanted jobs, he said "We will provide useful work for the needy unemployed; because, we prefer useful work to the pauperism of a dole!" Today, we see the opposite mentality in our political leaders: They refuse to provide useful work for the needy unemployed, and they bow down before Corporate America. For people who need help, and for people who haven't seen a pay raise in years, this is the ultimate nightmare. It's a ruthless, in-your-face plutocracy. Image courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

Republican and Tea Party politicians have blocked extended unemployment benefits and have also blocked efforts to protect the long-term jobless from hiring discrimination. Republican and Tea Party politicians even blocked legislation that would have created a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans, even though there is a suicide problem among young veterans, and even though we know that unemployment and financial stress can lead to suicide (see, e.g., here, here, and here).

There is a Republican War Against the Long-Term Unemployed--a ruthless one. Even Republican Governor John Kasich (Ohio) has noted this: "I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy. You know what? The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A." Lately, there have been some high-profile exits from the Republican Party, and those exiting have cited the party's extremism & intolerance as their reasons (see, e.g., here and here).

 (Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA and one of the main architects of the New Deal, delivers a speech at the Louisiana State University football stadium (recently improved by the WPA) in 1936. During the speech, Hopkins said "The things they have actually accomplished all over America should be an inspiration to every reasonable person and an everlasting answer to all the grievous insults that have been heaped on the heads of the unemployed." Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

The Democrats, for their part, are too timid and naive on the problem of long-term unemployment. When the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) tried to create a new WPA for the unemployed, his fellow Democrats displayed their timid nature by twiddling their thumbs and looking the other way as the legislation died in committee. More recently, Obama has prodded businesses to sign pledges that they won't discriminate against the long-term unemployed, in a naive effort to help the jobless (one might forgive Obama for doing the best he can, given Republican and Tea Party obstruction, but why did Obama not offer aggressive support for Lautenberg's WPA bill? Why did he not use the bully pulpit when so many millions were in dire need of help?).

The ruthlessness, timidity, and naivete described above was not always the norm. During the New Deal, policy-makers acted compassionately, boldly, and with common sense. They saw a problem--the private sector casting aside their fellow Americans--and said, in effect, "Alright then, we'll hire them!" And so they did: Well over 10 million jobless Americans were hired into the public work programs of the CWA, CCC, WPA, and NYA. There were jobs for artists, blue-collar workers, white collar workers, older workers, younger workers, men, women, whites, blacks, Indians, and more. And many of the things they created--e.g., works of art, roads, airports, books, research--we still enjoy & utilize today. In fact, many of the people who vilify "big bad government" utilize the creations of the New Deal, completely oblivious to the hypocrisy of their anti-government declarations.

(FDR proposes an Economic Bill of Rights, including "the right to a useful and remunerative job." Sadly, we haven't adopted FDR's proposal, choosing instead to let the unemployed fend for themselves as Corporate America sends good American jobs overseas so that the already-rich can get richer (lower labor & safety costs =  more investment income for the 1%). Worse still, Corporate America pays our Congressmen and women to look the other way, with massive campaign contributions, while they gut the American workforce. Result? America's labor force participation rate is the lowest since 1978, and wages have been stagnant for decades.)

When one sees the ruthlessness, timidity, and naivete of our modern political "leaders" (with a few notable exceptions, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), and then compares that with the tough, no-nonsense, and compassionate leadership of the New Deal, one has to ask, "What in God's name happened?" President Franklin Roosevelt once said "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Today, facilitated by campaign contributions by the super-wealthy, and exemplified by the Republican War Against the Long-Term Unemployed, we have adopted the opposite philosophy: "Better a cold and apathetic government, than a government that honors the General Welfare Clause of the U.S. Constitution and helps those it is charged with helping."

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