The GOP Embraces Its Inner Grinch

Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits is cold-hearted and wrong-headed.

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Occasionally, in politics, parties drop the pretense, stop fighting it and just embrace their caricatures. So the GOP, which every December transmogrifies in its critics' eyes into the living embodiment of Dr. Seuss' Grinch, has embraced the role.

How else can one explain the fact that, thanks to the GOP refusing to allow an extension, Congress is just days away from letting supplemental unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million Americans? And that's just for starters. According to the White House Council on Economic Advisers, an additional 3.6 million people will lose their benefits by the end of 2014. These families should not, in other words, splurge on a Christmas feast of Who-pudding and rare Who-roast beast.

Not, mind you, that these benefits are going to buy many pantookahs, dafflers or wuzzles. The National Employment Law Project notes that "while the average American family spends $1,407 per month on housing alone, the average monthly extension benefit is only $1,166." Still the modest sums help: According to the Council of Economic Advisers, in 2012 alone unemployment insurance benefits "lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty." Further, the National Employment Law Project estimates, 446,000 of those people were children.

[2013: The Year in Cartoons]

So why do Republicans oppose extending benefits? Are their hearts two sizes too small? Perhaps, but the ostensible reason is an improving economy. The time for extensive, extended unemployment benefits has passed, they say. That was the position House Speaker John Boehner elucidated after the unemployment rate dropped to a four-year-low of 7 percent. "Today's report includes positive signs that should discourage calls for more emergency government 'stimulus,'" Boehner said before going on to call for the president to enact GOP "pro-growth solutions" meant to, you know, stimulate the economy.

But is Boehner right? Unemployment is down, but it's still higher than the 5.5 rate in June 2008 when George W. Bush initiated these emergency benefits. "The economy is slowly recovering, it's still in low gear," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House budget committee. "You still have millions of Americans unemployed, and when you dig a little deeper, you find that the number of long-term unemployed has not decreased." The unemployment rate for them is 2.6 percent (representing some 4.1 million people), and as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Chad Stone wrote in U.S. News' Economic Intelligence blog last week, "At 2.6 percent, the long-term unemployment rate is at least twice as high as when any previous emergency federal unemployment insurance program expired."

These long-term unemployed are in an especially vexing situation. The longer they are out of work, the less likely it is that they will find work. This is part of the reason that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently told Fox News Sunday that extending unemployment would "do a disservice to these workers." But Paul confuses cause and effect: The long-term unemployed aren't that way because of the benefits. They're that way because of what economists call "scarring" – employers are less inclined to hire someone who has been detached from the labor force for an extended period. Unemployment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Underlying Paul's comment is the odious assumption so common on the right that, as House budget committee Chairman Paul Ryan put it in 2012, the social safety net might become a "hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives." Given the value of the average benefit, Paul, Ryan and their cohorts seem to believe that unemployed Americans hold their will cheap.

And consider who we're talking about. Nearly 46 percent of the long-term unemployed have at least some college education; nearly 42 percent are between the ages of 26 and 45; more than 30 percent have children. As the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Strain told The Washington Post this month, "someone who has been unemployed for 30 or 35 or 40 weeks, and is in their prime earning years with kids and education – It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search."