Monday, December 30, 2013

Unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million Americans - Happy New Year!

Deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), designed to keep low-income Americans from going hungry in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, have forced affected families to rely on food banks and community organizations to stave off hunger. Government benefits for nutritional assistance were reduced in November, after the expiration of emergency legislation following the 2008 collapse, cutting benefits for 48 million people, including 22 million children, by an average of 7%.

The $5 billion in cuts in government assistance to struggling families has stretched charitable organizations thin, leaving many Americans families without the ability to put food on their tables. The government will cut $40 billion over the next ten years, but the average $29 per family of three will amount to about 1.5 billion meals this year alone.

The government's early Christmas present was just the beginning. That's because the government now contends that we are in a period of economic growth and therefore we will see even more cuts to emergency assistance over the next year. Happy New Year!

On Saturday at midnight, approximately 1.3 million Americans who lost their jobs in the last two years during the worst jobs market since the Great Depression, saw their unemployment benefits expire. Congress, now known for not getting anything of importance done, failed to pass an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

Republicans believe giving long-term benefits to the unemployed is bad for the economy. They say we can't afford billions of dollars of aid in this economic climate. And the worst part, they argue, is that people getting unemployment benefits lack motivation to get a job. The fact that the average unemployed American is getting $300 dollars a week would make that argument seem tenuous at best.

Democrats believe, correctly, that 1.3 million Americans will spend their $300 a week, pumping money into the economy and creating jobs. They also point out that in order to receive unemployment benefits, the recipient must be actively seeking work. Obviously, there are a few who are not actively in pursuit of a job yet are taking money from the government. They must have rich parents, or be independently wealthy. Playing video games all day and watching Duck Dynasty marathons must be fun. But most people receiving benefits are just trying to get by in one of the worst economies in history. They have a family and they need it, desperately. Democrats have the compassion to know this. Unemployment insurance can stimulate the economy and help get workers back where they want to be. In addition, it's the right thing to do.

The program was originally intended to help jobless people after they exhausted state benefits, which typically lasts six months. Republican members of Congress resisted continuing the benefits due to its high costs. But the Congressional Budget Office estimated the $25 billion needed for another year would spur the economy enough to create around 200,000 jobs.

Reinstating unemployment benefits is expected to be one of the first priorities for congressional Democrats in the new year. Democrats have voiced their displeasure at Republican obstructionism in general, but when it comes to taking money out of the hands of people who need it most, Democrats have been quick to point out that America was built on the foundation that we don't abandon our citizens in times of crisis. Democratic National Committee chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement Saturday, “What makes matters worse, the loss of benefits comes just a few days after the holidays.”

According to White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, “the President said his administration would, as it has for several weeks now, push Congress to act promptly and in bipartisan fashion to address this urgent economic priority.”

Obama says the abrupt cut-off in cash assistance during the holidays will hurt economic growth and jobs. But don't expect him to suddenly talk sense into Republicans who could care less about doing the right thing and are more interested in their self-interests, including courting Tea Party nutjobs and racist and homophobic old white guys who vote for them.

There's a lot at stake. By the end of 2014 the number of Americans who will lose access to long-term unemployment benefits will be five times higher. By July, another 1.9 million people will lose extended benefits, and by the end of the year, 1.6 million more will be kicked out of the program, totaling about five million Americans.

Five millions Americans is a large number to abandon, as if any number would be OK. And this a lot worse than a $29 cut in food stamps. We’re talking about mortgage payments, healthcare payments, money to pay for essential utilities and other necessary living expenses. For instance, how do you actively seek employment without a car, clothes, computer, or phone? And by the end of 2014, this will affect not just those five million people, but their dependents as well. This amounts to an additional 5 to 10 million people.

The proposal from Congress and the President is to extend these benefits for another three months, and most would suggest that this will prevent a crisis. Actually, it will be kicking the can down the road, something Congress is getting really good at.

It will take more than three months to pull the U.S. out of the worst economic quagmire since the Depression. A lot longer. But the economy will eventually turn around. The laws of economics dictate this.

The decisions made by the our governmental leaders can prolong the recovery, or shorten it. Giving unemployment benefits to Americans who have fallen on hard times is imperative. Economists have pointed out that not only will it not hurt the economy, but extending unemployment benefits will help create jobs by putting money back into a much needed segment of the populace.

Democratic members of Congress will make reinstating these benefits one of their first priorities in the new year. The long-term unemployed are facing historically difficult times. Congressional Republicans shouldn't abandon them.

But don't hold your breath.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Barack Obama and the dreaded curse of the second term

It's called the “second term curse”. Every recent president fortunate enough to win re-election has been unfortunate enough to have to deal with some sort of scandal, either real or fabricated.

President Obama's second term agenda hit a brick wall last month when a series of these so-called scandals took over the airwaves, as the media filled the gap left by some slow news days.

Just over four months into Obama's second term, he is mired in three scandals that threaten his ability to govern effectively for the remainder of his time in office, or at least until the 2014 mid-term elections.

Obama is facing his toughest time in office after the never-ending criticism of how his administration handled the Benghazi attacks, the IRS' targeting of Tea Party groups, and the Department of Justice's probe into the AP journalists' phone records. The focus has shifted away from the broader policy debates that the president spoke of in his second inaugural address in January.

But do the recent events that the Republicans are calling scandals really rise to the level of scandals, and is Obama really becoming mired in the dreaded “second term curse”?

Historically, Obama seems to be falling into the same pattern as his recent predecessors. Watergate led Richard Nixon all the way to his political downfall. Ronald Reagan got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal, causing historians to put an asterisk next to his presidency. Bill Clinton made Monica Lewinsky famous, causing a media firestorm that practically overshadowed everything else he did. George W. Bush showed his ineptitude by screwing up the response to Hurricane Katrina and leading us into the Iraq War after false reports that weapons of mass destruction existed.

Obama surely has studied the history of past two-term presidents, and learned that the best thing to do at the slightest hint of a scandal is to get out in front of the story. The Obama administration seems to be playing catch-up to events that, on closer inspection, don't rise to the level of Watergate, Iran-Contra, or WMDs in Iraq.

The Obama administration should have been prepared for the Republican Party to take things one step beyond obstructionism. The GOP's first term agenda was to defeat Obama. The second term, as history has shown, is the time that the opposing party does whatever it takes to pin a scandal on the incumbent president.

The problem with the current trio of events labeled scandals by the GOP and the conservative media is that they don't pack the same punch as Nixon's Watergate, for example.

How many hours of non-stop reporting about the IRS can we watch? The AP phone records scandal? I'm bored already. And Benghazi seems to be more about what it was originally: an attack on Hillary Clinton, and her likely 2016 presidential run. The Benghazi story may or may not fizzle out by 2016, but either way, it could bypass Obama and land on Clinton. But most Americans are as bored as I am about Benghazi, and I suspect that most Republicans don't know where it is.

All of this could have been predicted. The Republicans will do anything to discredit the president, and the longer a president is in office, the more executive-branch decisions cross his desk. With every passing month, it becomes more likely that at least one of his many decisions will turn out to be wrong, ill-advised or worse. By the second term, even the best, luckiest and smartest president will have made an incorrect decision.

Obama has made mistakes, judgment calls and taken risks. The killing of Osama bin Laden could have taken a very bad turn. The attack in Benghazi did turn out badly, as did the IRS debacle and the AP phone record incident. But were these events under the direction of President Obama, and was there a cover-up by the president? If you listen to Republican leaders, Obama is guilty of covering up just about everything. It doesn't seem so long ago that the president was involved in a massive conspiracy to cover up his real birthplace, Kenya.

All of this leads back to the question: Is Obama a victim of the “second term curse”? No, he's a victim of “second term Republican obstructionism”.