Jobless need help from Congress

They are our neighbors and our kids' schoolteachers. They are the people who in better times built our houses and highways, manufactured the goods we use and stocked the shelves in our stores.

Meet the long-term unemployed. There but for some fortunate breaks go many of us. So why are they being vilified?

Congress is dithering on extending unemployment insurance benefits. The longer the debate goes on, the more it encourages the false but deep-rooted American notion that if a person is in need, it's got to be his or her fault.

And so we have senators and think-tank types opining that extended unemployment insurance presents a "disincentive" for people to look for work. As if living on uncertainty and an average of $310 a week is now the great American dream.

We have Rand Paul, the GOP senatorial candidate from Kentucky, lecturing on a radio show that "... ultimately we do have to sometimes accept a wage that's less than we had at our previous job in order to get back to work and allow the economy to get started again." Like people desperate for jobs haven't thought of that.

We have people using the Internet's cloak of anonymity to express insulting opinions.

"The great unasked question in the face of bad unemployment numbers is, how many of these people weren't performing well even in the 'good' times?" a reader asked in response to a piece by journalist Rod Dreher on beliefnet.com.

We have in our nation a tendency to want to blame people for their own bad circumstances. It reared up in the health care debate, when uninsured people were maligned as handout seekers.

I will agree that actions and behaviors can and often do play a role in one's circumstances. But right now we have five job seekers applying for every opening. Those are lousy odds, even if employers aren't stigmatizing the unemployed.

I know some of these people. Many of them have worked for decades and took great pride in doing so. They are people who volunteer in their communities, send their kids to college and care for elderly parents.

Conservatives tell us that "the overwhelming majority" of studies show that people postpone looking for work if they're receiving unemployment pay.

Don't buy it. Newer research is finding that it's not the lack of trying that's keeping people out of work. It's the lack of jobs.

One example: Economists Rob Valetta and Katherine Kuang at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco analyzed the experiences of workers who left their jobs voluntarily and received no unemployment benefits, and workers who were laid off and receive unemployment insurance.

They found little difference in the length of time it took the two categories of workers to find new jobs. For both groups, the search took too long.

Of course Congress should extend unemployment benefits. The money will act as a stimulus, stave off foreclosures and keep people from needing other forms of aid.

Agree or disagree, but can we at least not make unemployed people the villains of this debate? They don't need the hassle. They need jobs.

Contact Shelly, a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board, at bshelly@kcstar.com.