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A Jobless Fairy Tale

The new politics of unemployment.

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Last Tuesday, Congress let unemployment benefits expire for 635,000 out-of-work Americans. If it doesn’t act, by year’s end another 1.68 million will lose their weekly stipend. A big hang-up, as is expected these days, is the deficit. Another is impatience with the jobless themselves.

Keeping unemployment benefits going past the standard 26 weeks, as the eight extensions so far this recession have done, has gotten expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates such aid will cost $160 billion this year; letting the payments expire puts 2011’s projected tab at $93 billion. Democrats haven’t offered a way to offset the cost, so Republicans haven’t bitten. Republicans, of course, also want to renew the Bush tax cuts for the rich, which could be much worse for the deficit. They justify this by framing the wealthy as job creators who will create those jobs only if levies are kept low. Meanwhile, long-term job seekers don’t deserve government favors. Because if you’re struggling this much to find work, the thinking goes, maybe it’s not the economy. Maybe it’s you.

Smart Republicans, wary of angering voters (60 percent of the country favors a benefit extension), don’t actually say this aloud. But that’s the message their stance sends, and it’s finding an audience. As has, not coincidentally, a new Lifetime reality show called The Fairy Jobmother, which illustrates our warped attitudes toward the unemployed better than any political sound bite ever could.

A recent episode was typical: The Jobmother visits California couple Ray and Deanna Senior, both unemployed for two years; they and their four kids are now living with his parents. Ray hasn’t looked for a job in the paper in a week. He’s never looked for one online. The Jobmother lectures into the camera: “Once someone has a safety net, there is no urgency to go out and do anything for themselves.” But then the Fairy Jobmother works her magic and proves that even loafs like Ray and Deanna can find jobs (he at a car dealer, she at an art gallery).

That, at least, is how it works on reality TV. In actual reality, Ray and Deanna would have had trouble finding work even if they knew what they were doing. Currently there’s only one opening for every five unemployed workers; at the peak of the 2001 recession, the ratio was less than half that. And there’s little evidence that unemployment checks inure Americans to scraping by on $300 a week.

So what to do with the job seeker who has overstayed his welcome on the government teat? Economists would say such a person doesn’t exist. A Labor Department study found that every dollar of unemployment insurance is worth $2 to the broader economy. (Every dollar of tax cuts, in comparison, is worth as little as 25 cents.) Congress can still come together to renew the benefits. But even if that happens, the underlying attitude remains: The long-term unemployed must fend for themselves. The government isn’t going to hand down a fairy-tale ending.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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