Rand Paul is totally, shamefully wrong about the long-term unemployed

The Kentucky senator thinks he's helping people by kicking them off unemployment. He couldn't be more wrong

Published January 4, 2014 1:15PM (EST)

Sen. Rand Paul                                   (AP/Reed Saxon)
Sen. Rand Paul (AP/Reed Saxon)

Right-wing libertarian that he is, Rand Paul isn’t much for using the federal government to make the world a slightly less terrible place. It was hardly a surprise, then, to find out the Kentucky senator opposed extending emergency unemployment compensation, preferring instead to let it expire for some 1.3 million in late December, with millions more to come after that. EUC is a federal government program, after all; and worse still, it’s one whose primary beneficiaries are the unemployed, a population with little political influence or social standing. You’d expect, in other words, Rand Paul to leave these people shuddering in the winter cold. It’s what his rigid vision of libertarianism requires.

What was less predictable, however, was Paul’s stated justification for opposing EUC. Rather than talk about “makers” and “takers” and the economy’s winners and losers, Paul attempted to repackage his laissez faire absolutism as a kind of tough love empathy. He pointed to a study that, he claimed, showed those on EUC had a harder time reentering the workforce (an interpretation one of the study’s authors subsequently differed with). He talked about how those advocating for an EUC extension were doing a “disservice” to America’s long-term unemployed workers. He made kicking millions to the curb sound like nothing less than an act of benevolence, bordering on charity. Whether it was a feat of self-delusion or chutzpah, only Paul can really say. (My guess is somewhere in-between.)

But as is so often the case with right-wing libertarianism, Paul's flimsy moral reasoning simply disintegrates once it comes into contact with the facts on the ground. Implicit in Paul’s formulation is the idea that there are jobs to be had, if only the long-term unemployed would stop relying on government checks and go and have them. Considering that the total number of long-term unemployed set to be sent adrift by the expiration of EUC is somewhere in the vicinity of 5 million, it’s quite likely that, in some instances, this is true. But for the vast, vast majority of those on EUC, the reality is that there simply are not enough jobs to go around. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study found the ratio of job seekers to job openings to be nearly 3-to-1, and that’s the national figure — in many regions, the chances of finding employment are considerably worse.

What’s more, Paul’s understanding of the long-term unemployed also betrays a shameful ignorance as to what life on EUC is actually like. People on EUC aren’t collecting their former paycheck while sitting around and waiting for work to come to them. They’re receiving a mere fraction of their former salary and are under constant pressure to prove that they are indeed searching for new employment. As Kim Merryman, a former water quality technician for an Indian reservation who was laid off in April, told me, “It’s not like [EUC] allows me to live this comfortable, cushy life.” In 2012, the average weekly compensation for those on EUC was $300.

What EUC does do for Merryman and millions like her is allow her “to have a roof over my head, have gas in my car, get down to the employment agency, [and] to get my résumés out.” Rather than keep Merryman out of the workforce, in other words, EUC keeps her in it by helping her to continue to search for a job. That’s why economists believe ending EUC will lead to many of the unemployed simply giving up on finding a new job and dropping out of the workforce entirely. While this would technically reduce the unemployment rate, it would do little to actually improve the labor market or the economy on the whole. In fact, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, because recipients of EUC tend to, out of necessity, spend the money right away, the expiration of the program could deprive the economy of as many as 200,000 jobs and 0.2 percent of GDP.

For these both moral and technocratic reasons, extending EUC is the mainstream position. A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans support an extension, while only 34 percent oppose one. The Rand Paul school of thought, that those on EUC are layabouts turning down work in order to bask in the glow of their government-provided largess, is, thankfully, an outlier. And there’s concrete political action taking place in Washington, too. With the White House’s backing, Democrats like Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed are already trying to pass a three-month extension of EUC that will keep the 1.3 million cut off on Dec. 28 afloat while Congress hashes out a longer-term agreement. Nothing’s ever certain with Republicans in Congress, of course, but it’s in the GOP’s self-interest to move the issue to the political sidelines, so there’s reason for optimism that such a deal will ultimately pass.

All the same, that 1.3 million Americans have been forced to greet the new year with little to no idea how they’ll next make ends meet is still a national disgrace. That so many Americans have been left to suffer through the hell of long-term unemployment is itself a national disgrace. And even if this round of economic Darwinism proves to be short-lived, the reality of a jobless recovery means there’s little doubt that millions more will soon find themselves in the impossible situation now confronting Merryman and so many like her. If that's the case, let's hope the long-term unemployed continue to have better friends in high places than the junior senator from Kentucky.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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