It has been said before -- recently, even -- but it bears saying again and again, as any truth does. Conservatives have finally, and completely, abandoned compassion. Progressives spent much of the previous decade declaring the "compassionate conservatism" of the Bush era a cruel joke. Policy gestures in that vein were seldom backed with the money to make them work. And there there was Bush administration’s cruel habit of praising successful programs only to have his administration recommend devastating cuts to the same programs -- often as the president’s praise was still ringing in the air.
In her 2003 column, "The Uncompassionate Conservative," Molly Ivins cited as an example of the above President George W. Bush’s praise of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program [LIHEAP] -- which helps low income families heat their homes in the winter -- during a presidential debate in 2000, only to turn around and cut $300 million from the program in his first budget as president -- even as people were freezing to death. Ivins attributes this to a kind of pathological cluelessness on the part of Bush and his "compassionate conservatism."
The Reverend Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fight poverty, told the New York Times that shortly after his election, Bush had said to him, "I don’t understand how poor people think," and had described himself as a "white Republican guy who doesn’t get it, but I’d like to." What’s annoying about Bush is when this obtuseness, the blinkeredness of his life, weighs so heavily on others, as it has increasingly as he has acquired more power.
…What is the disconnect? One can see it from the other side — people’s lives are being horribly affected by the Bush administration’s policies, but they make no connection between what happens to them and the decisions made in Washington. I think I understand why so many people who are getting screwed do not know who is screwing them. What I don’t get is the disconnect at the top. Is it that Bush doesn’t want to see? No one brought it to his attention? He doesn’t care?
Okay, we cut taxes for the rich and so we have to cut services for the poor. Presumably there is some right-wing justification along the lines that helping poor people just makes them more dependent or something. If there were a rationale Bush could express, it would be one thing, but to watch him not see, not make the connection, is another thing entirely. Welfare, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps — horrors, they breed dependency. Whereas inheriting millions of dollars and having your whole life handed to you on a platter is good for the grit in your immortal soul? What we’re dealing with here is a man in such serious denial it would be pathetic if it weren’t damaging so many lives.
Though Bush -- the recent attempt to rehabilitate his image by publishing a memoir (that he hardly bothered to write) notwithstanding -- has faded from the political scene, much of what Ivins noted in 2003 can be observed in today’s GOP and its Tea Party base, with one very important exception.
Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for The Financial Times, was one of the first political writers to pick up on the significance of [Vanderbilt University historian Gary] Gerstle's essay. Caldwell, an American conservative, used it to critique Bush's multicultural and compassion agenda and to explain the tea party's rise. Intriguingly, he suggests that "many of the tea party's gripes about President Barack Obama can also be laid at the door of Mr. Bush."
For example, the main effect of Bush's faith-based initiative, in Caldwell's view, was to funnel "a lot of federal money to urban welfare and substance abuse programs." The No Child Left Behind Act, which "meant to improve educational outcomes for minorities, did so at the price of centralizing authority in Washington." And of course, there was Bush's 2007 immigration reform proposal, "the clearest sign that he was losing the ear of his party."
For liberals, the publication of Bush's memoirs has largely been an occasion for revisiting all the areas in which they rate his presidency a catastrophic failure: the rush to war in Iraq, torture, tax cuts for the rich, the response to Hurricane Katrina. It's hard for liberals (believe me, I know) to fathom that there are any parts of the Bush legacy we might miss.
But imagine if the main result of the tea party is a "correction" of the Bush creed involving a move away from its most open and tolerant features and a rebellion against even the idea that compassion is a legitimate object of public policy. A conservatism that abandons the redeeming side of Bushism will not be an improvement on the old model.
The difference between the "compassionate conservatism" of the Bush era and the compassionless conservatism ascendant in the GOP today is that there can be no claim of cluelessness or obtuseness. There is daily evidence that the people’s lives are being horribly affected by the GOP’s policies and political tactics -- such as blocking the extension of unemployment benefits amid record unemployment and long-term unemployment. The rhetoric around this stomach-turning obstruction is a mixture of fickleness around "fiscal responsibility" and outright derision and hatred from the very people bearing the brunt of the economic crisis: the long-term unemployed who, after 99 weeks, face the exhaustion of their unemployment benefits. Today’s conservatives can’t claim not to know how their policies impact Americans’ lives. Rather than not knowing, today’s "uncompassionate conservatism" stems from not caring how their policies and political tactics impact people.
Lost in the debate of the president’s proposed "deal" with Republicans to "temporarily" extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for a 13-month extension of the emergency extension of unemployment insurance benefits is one devastating reality. The proposed deal holds nothing for the 99ers, those Americans who have exhausted or are close to exhausting their unemployment benefits. In the proposed deal as it currently stands, the 99ers get nothing.
The recent tax compromise between President Obama and the Republicans may be packed with treats for the upper middle class and the wealthy, but its benefits for the unemployed are perhaps not quite what they appear.
The 13-month extension of unemployment benefits offers no additional help for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already reached, or are fast approaching, the 99-week limit on unemployment benefits. By contrast, my colleague David Kocieniewski noted in his article on Wednesday that a quarter of the savings from this compromise will go to the wealthiest 1 percent.
"There is nothing for someone who is in that unfortunate position," Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said of the so-called 99ers.
All the evidence suggests that "job-creating tax cuts" are an oxymoron. Tax cuts are lousy job creators, says the CBO. The wealthy don’t spend tax cuts, says Moody’s. Elementary economics says that businesses don’t expand just because they have more money around. They expand, and increase hiring, only when they have a profit-driven reason for doing so: like when demand for goods and services outstrips their ability to supply their goods and services.
The decision to extend tax cuts has nothing to do with job creation, and that anyone in the administration can say the words "job-creating tax cuts" with a straight face suggests that either they are not paying attention, or that ceding tax cuts to the GOP is a purely political move. Either way, it’s got little to do with creating jobs.
REED: I think we’re reaching a point of diminishing marginal returns on that where the evidence is the more we extend unemployment benefits beyond what used to be 26 weeks, it then turned into 52 weeks, we’re now past 96 weeks.
What we’re doing is we’re basically subsidizing unemployment at a certain point and not encouraging people to reenter the private sector. So I’m not philosophically oppose to extending unemployment benefits, but where do you draw the line? Is it going to be at 250 weeks?
I think at some point we’ve got to be about creating jobs and the eye ought to be on that.
SPITZER: Ralph –
REED: Not on how long you can pay people to be without work.
SPITZER: Nobody disagrees that the primary focus has go to be job creation. On the other hand, as a simple matter of compassion, humanitarian values, when about half of those who are unemployed, have been unemployed for over six months because there simply are no jobs.
SPITZER: It’s impossible to get a job out there. You cannot say to those folks — we should not as a society say, we won’t give you enough money to put food on the table for your kids. And the threshold that you’re talking about, everybody agrees there should be a threshold. And you know what? We can set it when unemployment gets below 7 percent, 6 percent, 5 percent — pick a number that we can agree upon that makes sense but not when it’s 9.6 percent, or realistically, 16, 17, 18 percent.
This is simply not humane to say to people we won’t give you food — money for food and yet we’re giving a tax break to millionaires. That’s not the society I believe the United States represents.
REED: Well, that’s the problem with making fiscal policy based on the misplaced compassion that doesn’t work. The empirical evidence, Eliot, is very clear, which is that people are more likely to reenter the workforce and find a real job that carries with it dignity, self support and no longer being dependent upon the government when those unemployment benefits run out.
That’s the empirical evidence.
Reed’s mention of "misplaced compassion" becomes ironic in the face of a "deal" to "extend unemployment benefits" that in reality leaves those most in need -- the long term unemployed -- out in the cold while handing the lion’s share of benefits to the top 1% -- again. Conservative compassion is reserved, in this case, not for the unemployed who may literally lose their homes when unemployment benefits run out, but for the wealthy who could end up paying a higher estate tax.
In the world that exists between the ears of such conservatives there is, in actuality, no jobs crisis. In fact, there is no unemployment problem. The 14.8 million unemployed Americans out there simply don’t want to work. There is no shortage of jobs. Just a shortage of willing workers.
In the real world, millions of unemployed Americans have been trying to "reenter the private sector," in some cases desperately applying for any job they can find, only to discover that the private sector neither wants nor needs most of them now. For every one person who does"reenter the private sector," usually for far less money than they were making before, there are four or five more who won’t find work because there’s no work to find.
Not long after publishing the story of Chrissandra Walker, a former nursing home executive laid off a year-and-a-half ago -- whose story I blogged about last month, the Washington Post published another story that illustrates the difficulty of "reentering the private sector" in a stalled economy.
The real story, however, is in the applications, and what they reveal about the applicants. IHOP granted the Post access to the applications on the condition that applicant’s names were withheld. Combined with the Post’s interviews with the restaurant’s new hires, the data paints a picture of both young people looking for first jobs competing with educated, experienced older workers who are desperate to "reenter the private sector" after long periods of unemployment.
In hundreds of applications for jobs at the District’s new IHOP, candidate after candidate reels off impressive work histories: One woman was a clerk at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, another assisted clients at a tax prep firm, and another spent the summer canvassing for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s reelection campaign. "I speak Spanish well," wrote one woman, noting that she was also a choreographer at a dance school.
Last week’s opening of an IHOP in fast-gentrifying Columbia Heights – home to Target, Best Buy and a gastropub featuring $7 pints of British draft beer – offers a glimpse into a stalled economy that has produced a vast pool of experienced job seekers, some of whom are desperate for work, yet quite conscious of having to aim lower than they might in better times.
Many of the IHOP’s new employees, who spent last week memorizing the differences between, say, the Viva La French Toast Combo and the Stuffed French Toast Combo, said they were rejects from other major chain stores. Many had been seeking work for six months to more than a year. In the "reasons left" section of their IHOP applications, they boiled their career moves down to telegraphic phrases: "company layoff," "terrible mgnt," "maternity leave."
…About 14 percent of IHOP’s hires have college diplomas, trade certificates or vocational degrees, compared with about 21 percent of those in the rejected pool. Among the hires, 85 percent had work experience, versus 92 percent of those who were passed over. Hires were slightly more likely to have high school diplomas or GEDs – 86 percent compared with about 80 percent among those rejected.
The stories of the 120 who finally found employment at IHOP reflect the desperation of unemployed job seekers in an economic crisis with little relief in sight and even less to come. But the Post didn’t tell the rest of the story; that of the hundreds who didn’t make the cut, and must continue trying to "reenter" a private sector that doesn’t have a place for most of them.
As the long term unemployed continue trying to "reenter the private sector" with little success, millions at least had a lifeline in the form of unemployment benefits that have kept them just the side of economic oblivion. Chrissandra Walker, the 50-year-old former nursing home exec mentioned in the article above, earned $100,000 a year before losing her job through no apparent fault of her own. She now gets by on unemployment benefits that add up to about $11,000 a year, which she supplements by selling homemade meals that she cooks in her kitchen. Unable to find another job, Walker gets up and goes to work in her kitchen at 6:00 a.m, doing what (as the Post article notes) many American women did during the Depression -- taking to their kitchens and selling dinners from back porches and windowsills, or taking in laundry to make ends meet or at least bring them closer to meeting.
If you’re thinking it seems obscene that the biggest fight in Washington right now is over whether to give the rich yet another round of tax breaks, on the heels of a 14.3% poverty rate, then you and I are on the same page.
But as heartbreaking as the Census data is, it’s worth remembering that government spending prevented it from being even worse. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Arloc Sherman reports today that an analysis of the new survey data "shows that unemployment insurance benefits — which expanded substantially last year in response to the increased need — kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009."
Sherman added, "In other words, there were 43.6 million Americans whose families were below the poverty line in 2009, according to the official poverty statistics, which count jobless benefits as part of families’ income. But if you don’t count jobless benefits, 46.9 million Americans were poor."
And this is just UI. It’s hard to calculate, but imagine what the poverty rate would have been without the Recovery Act, too.
Not anymore. Without a "deal" for Americans facing long term unemployment, the last thread of the safety net will be cut, and for many there will be nothing to stop them falling.
Facing eviction from her Tennessee apartment after several months of unpaid rent, Alexandra Jarrin packed up whatever she could fit into her two-door coupe recently and drove out of town.
Ms. Jarrin, 49, wound up at a motel here, putting down $260 she had managed to scrape together from friends and from selling her living room set, enough for a weeklong stay. It was essentially all the money she had left after her unemployment benefits expired in March. Now she is facing a previously unimaginable situation for a woman who, not that long ago, had a corporate job near New York City and was enrolled in a graduate business school, whose sticker is still emblazoned on her back windshield.
"Barring a miracle, I'm going to be in my car," she said.
Ms. Jarrin is part of a hard-luck group of jobless Americans whose members have taken to calling themselves "99ers," because they have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that they can claim.
…Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent.
Ms. Jarrin said she wept as she drove away from her old life last month, wondering if she would ever be able to reclaim it.
"At one point, I thought, you know, what if I turned the wheel in my car and wrecked my car?" she said.
…Ms. Jarrin ping-pongs between resolve and despair. She received her last unemployment check in the third week of March, putting her among the first wave of 99ers. Her two checking accounts now show negative balances (she has overdrafts on both). Her cellphone has been ringing incessantly with calls from the financing company for her car loan. Her vehicle is on the verge of being repossessed.
It is a sickening plummet, considering that she was earning $56,000 a year in her old job, enjoyed vacationing in places like Mexico and the Caribbean, and had started business school in 2008 at Iona College.
Ms. Jarrin had scrabbled for her foothold in the middle class. She graduated from college late in life, in 2003, attending classes while working full time. She used to believe that education would be her ticket to prosperity, but is now bitter about what it has gotten her.
"I owe $92,000 for an education which is basically worthless," she said.
Forget Christmas presents. What the so-called "99ers" want most of all is what remains elusive in the worst economy in generations: a job.
"I am not searching for a job, I am begging for one," said Felicia Robbins, 30, as she prepared to move out of a homeless shelter in Pensacola, Fla., where she and her five children have been living. She is using the last of her cash reserves, about $500, to move into a small, unfurnished rental home.
Robbins lost her job as a juvenile justice worker in 2009 and her last $235 unemployment check will arrive Dec. 13. Her 10-year-old car isn’t running, and she walks each day to the local unemployment office to look for work.
Jeanne Reinman, 61, of Greenville, S.C., still has her house, but even that comes with a downside.
After losing her computer design job a year and a half ago, Reinman scraped by with her savings and a weekly $351 unemployment check. When her nest egg vanished in July, she started using her unemployment to pay off her mortgage and stopped paying her credit card bills. She recently informed a creditor she couldn’t make payments on a loan because her benefits were ending.
"I’m more concerned about trying to hang onto my house than paying you," she told the creditor.
…"I apply for at least two jobs a day," said Silvia Lewis, of Nashville, Tenn., who’s also drained her 401(k) and most of her other savings. "The constant thing that I hear, and a lot of my friends are in the same boat, is that you’re overqualified."
JoAnn Sampson of Charlotte hears the same thing. A former cart driver at U.S. Airways, she and her husband are both facing the end of unemployment benefits, and she can’t get so much as an entry-level job.
"When you try to apply for retail or fast food, they say ‘You’re overqualified,’ they say ‘We don’t pay that much money,’ they say, ‘You don’t want this job,’" she said.
If you want to understand why the economy is stalled, come to San Jose, Calif., and talk with 99ers like Marianne Rose. "I remember it coming close to like six months. I was saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m out of work this long.’ Then the year mark hit. And I just started just panicking seriously. Now that it’s over two years I can’t believe it. I just, I can’t believe it," she told Pelley.
Rose was a financial analyst at a real estate firm. Age 54, she’s single with a grown daughter. After being laid off with about 100 co-workers, she spent her savings, lost her home and finally found herself sitting in a truck with her dog and all of her possessions.
She made a desperate call to a friend and found refuge upstairs in the home of strangers, her friend’s brother and sister-in-law.
"How long did you think you would be in here?" Pelley asked.
"Two weeks really. That’s all I thought," she replied.
But she told Pelley it has been six months. "And not really an end in sight, yet."
"What sort of things would you be willing to do at this point?" Pelley asked.
"Well, I can say that probably the lowest level position for me has been now to apply for a clerk, a county clerk and I just realized the competition is pretty stiff out there," she replied.
Asked what she meant by stiff competition, Rose explained, "There’s a lot of people, speaking of the county. I had applied to those clerk positions. There’s actually four positions that were open. I found there were over 2,000 people that applied for those four positions."
The "60 Minutes" episode that featured Rose’s story painted a picture of just how hard many of the long-term jobless are trying to "reenter the private sector," and just how hard it is for them to do so.
"60 Minutes" joined a gathering called "Job Connections," held inside a local church.
It’s part how-to-find-a-job workshop, part networking opportunity with the feel of a 12-step program.
The people in the group are the faces of unemployment in Silicon Valley, people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who thought they had done everything right: earned a degree, stayed with their company, saved for retirement.
"I’m curious. How many PhDs in this room?" Pelley asked. "One, two, three, four... several. Now leave your hands up. How many master’s degrees? Oh boy. And how many of you went to college. Everybody keep your hands up if you have a college degree, a master’s degree or a PhD."
Many in the room had their hands up.
"How many of you expected to retire from the company where you were working?" he then asked.
"More than half the room," he noted.
"How many of you have cashed out your 401ks? IRAs? Savings accounts?" Pelley asked.
Again, many hands went up.
A lot of them are too young to retire and, maybe, too old to rehire. The longer they’re out, the tougher it gets.
At home, we tell our oldest son (a second-grader) that because he’s a bright kid, if he works hard and does his best in school, he may grow up to do even better than his parents have done. Stories like these make me wonder if one day he will look around and think that we were lying to him.
As more and more Americans hit the 99 week mark and "tumble over an economic cliff," the stories will most likely be endless.
Their stories, and the stories of millions of unemployed Americans who will be left out in the cold when the unemployment emergency outlasts their unemployment benefits, are also reflected in those gathered at unemployedworkers.org, a project of the National Employment Law Project.
R. P., Pembroke, NH
I am a 42 year old unemployed IT Technician. I became unemployed in late May this year when my employer decided they couldn’t afford to pay me. My wife does work but she earns very little, I was the breadwinner in the family. I have sent my resume to over 250 companies since June 2010 and have had 6 interviews all of which told me I was either overqualified or underqualified. At this point I have started applying at fast food chains and janitorial companies but still cannot get hired. I broke down crying during an interview yesterday because I cannot stop thinking about what will happen if I can’t find a job that at least pays me 250 weekly.
I have lost my car because I had a choice to either lose the car or my apartment because I couldn’t afford both nor did I have the security deposit money to move into another less expensive apartment. I have 3 daughters, 2 of which I have to support directly and financially and if I cannot find a job we will be homeless by February of 2011.
I have never in my life been out of work this long and at this point all I am asking is for my government to extend the EUC to allow me a little more time to find a suitable job.
G.D., Salyersville, KY
I am a union millwright. I’d been out of work for months when my union found me a job for three months earlier this year. February to April, but it was down in Mississippi and I had to borrow the money just to get down there. That job ended and now I’ve been unemployed again since May. I watch on tv on how the debate goes on about extending unemployment benefits, and I wonder why they are even debating this. Do those in government not understand that until the jobs come back there is no work. I have 4 kids and this year we do not have a Christmas tree, no presents, no nothing. My kids don’t understand, so I tried to talk to them. You know what my little boy said? He said "daddy, I’m sorry that I have been mean this year. Maybe Santa will come next year."
Has anyone in government ever had their kid think that they were the reason for all of this mess? I mean does anyone in government lay down at night and wonder where they are going to get the money for the things they need every day? I mean not things they want, but things they need. I’d like to ask them if they have ever had to decide between getting milk, eggs, or gas.
M.D. Palm Coast, FL
I have been unemployed since July 2009 when I was laid off from the job I had worked in the environmental testing field for 18 years. Prior to that, I had worked in the construction industry. There was a period of two years that I worked in the construction industry at a 40 hour a week job along with working as a closeout manager for a grocery food chain. This second job ended up being another 40 to 42 hours a week. Between the two jobs I was working 80 to 82 hours a week. This I felt I had to do to meet my financial responsibilities. I do take issue with those who feel unemployment compensation has made me turn away from this work ethic. That is not the case. It may be of interest to those who profess that unemployment benefits keep people from working to know that I do not wish to remain out of work, to be at home having only barely enough income to simply pay my daily living expenses not even enough for food expenses.
There is not a day that goes by I do not look for work in any of the fields that I have employment experience or any other field I might be allowed to enter. The radius of my search is 100 miles from my home. But with there being 5 unemployed for every 1 job what do the politicians suggest that should be done?
Vote on the unemployment programs and the tax cut extension for the middle class. After these issues have been voted on let the issue of tax cuts for the rest of america come to vote. We may well become an elite society in the future, but without a supporting middle class, where is the income to be generated from?
R.P., Santa Barbara, CA
"Prior to becoming unemployed, I had been working continuously since I was 16 years old. I was a financial analyst in the banking industry for 6 years, having entered that business as part of a career change after completing my MBA. This is the first time in my life I've ever been laid off or out of work, and my first time ever receiving unemployment insurance.
I have barely enough to pay rent, COBRA insurance, food and gas, and have just filed for bankruptcy as I do not have enough to pay even the minimum payments on the car and credit cards. I have been taking money out of my only asset - my small IRA retirement account. Unemployment insurance has allowed me to continue to look for work every day, and - for now - to avoid becoming homeless. I spend hours and hours every day seeking new work, in either my new field or my old one. But it seems so far that I have the disadvantage of being over-qualified for the few jobs available in either field, not to mention my age. The majority of positions I've seen available since June are no-benefit, minimum wage jobs.
My major concern short of finding a job is if Congress does not pass a continuation of the federal, extended program, I'll be forced to move - and have nowhere to go but to the streets. I'll have no money to buy food. I will lose my COBRA health insurance, which now costs more than one-fourth of my total monthly unemployment benefit. I will essentially be homeless unless I can find a job before my benefits run out a month from now. This is, needless to say, the most disturbing event of my life. And it's little consolation knowing that millions of people are in more or less the same boat."
The "tough decisions" we’re told are necessary to turn the economy around are turning out to be toughest on those having the toughest time in this economic crisis. The same people are being abandoned to the tender mercies of the next Congress, with a GOP majority in the House, as the White House hammers out an agreement to extend the tax cuts of the Bush era -- but not the unemployment benefits for the 99ers, and the 99ers-to-be if we continue creating jobs at the current rate. There’s nothing to inspire confidence that the GOP will wield its new power to help those facing personal disaster when their unemployment benefits run out, rather than to inflict more pain.
The next two years may make us nostalgic for the days when conservatives at least made gestures of compassion. For now they will inflict as much pain on middle- and working-class Americans as they can get away with. Not only that, but they will do so with gusto and even -- in some cases -- glee.