A Weak Excuse for an Unemployment Story

The Washington Post takes some Senate bait for its page-one story about the long-term unemployed, and the result, is, well, a little fishy.

The premise for this one is a few comments Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) made during last week’s debate on extending unemployment benefits. (Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who single-handedly delayed action for a few days, got most of the attention.)

As the Post puts it, Kyl “questioned why anyone would see unemployment benefits as helpful to the economy, or to the job market.”

“If anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work,” Kyl said. “I am sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can’t argue it is a job enhancer.”

Never mind that you almost certainly can (see the CBO’s statement below).

That entire line of attack is a lonely one. But the Post relies on it to write that, with 11.4 million people collecting unemployment compensation—and half of them receiving payments for more than six months—“critics are taking aim, saying that the Depression-era program created as a temporary bridge for laid-off workers is turning into an expensive entitlement.”

As we’ve said before, the unemployment story is long and sad, and the business press needs to be creative to tell it well. The New York Times did fine work on this front late last month, with a big-picture look at the scarcity of new jobs, the subsequent strains on the social safety net, and the formerly middle-class families trying to cope with it all.

But what the Post delivers is the opposite of creative. It is a he said/she said tale, with very little support for what Kyl, the main “he” here, said to get this ball rolling.

The premise of the piece doesn’t even pass the common sense test. And you don’t get the feeling that a lot of people at the Post have much experience with unemployment.

Speaking of common sense:

Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Center, says there’s a good reason people are out of work for so long. There are six unemployed Americans for every available job, he said.

“The primary reason people are out of work so long is a lack of jobs,” Stettner said.

And this:

Although the availability of long-term unemployment benefits “could dampen people’s efforts to look for work,” the Congressional Budget Office said in a February report, that concern “is less of a factor when employment opportunities are expected to be limited for some time.”

There’s also recognition from the CBO that people who get unemployment benefits “tend to plow the money right back into the economy, making them ‘both timely and cost-effective in spurring economic activity and employment.’”

Readers meet a few real people who are receiving unemployment checks, trying to keep up with the bills, and looking for work—but none who’ve put up their feet and given up the hunt. And there are a few words from a Heritage Foundation economist, who darkly suggests that, by extending unemployment benefits to up to 99 weeks, “it is no longer an unemployment insurance program but a welfare program.”

The most interesting nugget comes from a former Treasury official, who considers past recoveries and cautions: “It’s important to let the extensions lapse as the job market recovers—to avoid having disincentives to work once the job market is better.”

That’s food for thought. But if the premise of the piece is so faulty, was it really worth a story at all?

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.