Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has a proposal for the unemployed. He wants them drug tested before they can receive unemployment benefits. Hilarious! With unemployment rates at 9.7 percent, with nearly six million Americans out of work for at least six months, with more than a million people without support since their unemployment benefits have run out, Hatch proposes drug testing for unemployed people.
He and some of his colleagues are actually the ones who need drug testing. How could the Senate, by a vote of 57-42, prevent legislation that would have provided an unemployment benefit extension from moving forward? What could they possibly have been thinking? Senator John Kerry (D-Ma) described the action as "One of the worst moments I've seen in 25 years in the United States Senate. In time of economic trouble, our country expects Democrats and Republicans to pull together." This is politics at its absolute worst, with Republicans unifying to cut the unemployed off at the kneecaps. Meanwhile, Hatch wants drug testing. Given this vote on the unemployment benefit extension, perhaps Senator Hatch and the 42 might want to demonstrate that they were not impaired when they took their vote.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was among the many blasting the Republicans for playing games with people's survival. In Denver last week, she told Latino elected officials that the loss of unemployment benefits for more than 200,000 people a week would be "devastating". Some Republican Senators say the bill was too costly, and loaded up with too many amendments to pass. But debate on this legislation has lasted for more than two months - the House of Representatives voted for unemployment benefit extensions back in March. The tab on this bill is $18 billion, which is not chump change but it is certainly just a fraction of the $700 billion bank bailout, and just half of the money we just sent to support our effort in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the Republican Senators are taking their cues from those who are demonizing the unemployed. Writing for the US Chronicle, Stephanie Lee reported that online hostility toward the unemployed is notable, with those who need help being called "whiners" and "pathetic". Some companies looking for workers indicate that they will not consider people who are unemployed, no matter what the reason. (Now that is fascinating logic - who needs work more than the unemployed?). And in my own review of online responses to the failure of HR4213 in the Senate, I've found posts that describe the unemployed as "losers" and "lazy". At the same time, many of our unemployed brothers and sisters have posted poignant accounts of what their lives are like after they have lost their job, of making choices to feed children or spend money on transportation for job search, of adjusting expectations downward, of applying for positions for which they are overqualified, only to be rejected because they are overqualified. And Orrin Hatch wants to impose drug testing. When the United States Senate turns its backs on unemployed citizens to play partisan games who should really be drug tested?
The Toronto meeting of the G20 actually worsens prospects for the unemployed. Despite opposition by the United States, the G20 made a nonbinding pledge to halve budget deficits by 2013 and to balance budgets by 2016. Germany, which boasts a budget surplus, has argued that deficits in other countries are destabilizing. Yet government spending in many countries has provided a way out of the current economic slump. President Obama has cautioned that imposing austerity measures too soon may hinder world economic recovery. World deficit hawks prevailed, though, and France is now likely to announce deficit cuts in the next week or so, possibly planning to reduce tax breaks that had already been scheduled. In Spain, workers are protesting wage cuts with a three-day strike on Madrid's underground rail system. As in the United States, deficit hawks seek to balance budgets on the backs of workers.
Because the G20 accord is nonbinding, it has no legislative impact in the United States. At the same time, our own deficit hawks will use the G20 agreement as a way to buttress their own attempts to spend less. The victims, of course, are those unemployed people who need benefit extensions. Our casual acceptance of high rates of unemployment and the human toll this unemployment is repugnant.
There is the possibility that the Senate will reconsider the unemployment extension, perhaps passing it as a stand-alone bill, but they made no commitment after last Thursday's vote. If unemployed people would share their ire with the Senate, perhaps these folks would understand. For the moment, though, they have thumbed their noses at the nation's unemployed. In doing so, they've made it clear who really needs drug testing.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College.