Republicans' unemployment chutzpah: Desperate party tries to capitalize on workforce damage it wrought

First, Boehner and co. blocked unemployment insurance from being extended. Now? They're oh-so sad about its results

Published May 2, 2014 4:16PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Mitch McConnell                                                            (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Jobs Report Day is great fun. The first Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its employment survey from the previous month, and partisans from both sides of the aisle sit around it picking out their favorite morsels of data while studiously ignoring the numbers that undermine their preferred economic narrative.

The April jobs report featured a couple of snazzy topline numbers – 288,000 jobs created and an unemployment rate that dropped from 6.7 to 6.3 percent. It also had some worrying figures, most notably a decline in the civilian labor force of 806,000 and a 0.4 percent drop in the labor force participation rate. Take it all together and you have reason to smile while tugging at your collar.

If you peruse the responses from top-level Republicans, you quickly see a pattern emerge: “Yeah yeah more jobs whatever but LOOK AT ALL THE PEOPLE LEAVING THE WORKFORCE!!!”

Here’s John Boehner: “While it’s welcome news that more of our friends and neighbors found work in the past month, this report also indicates more than 800,000 Americans left the workforce last month, which is troubling.” And here’s RNC chair Reince Priebus: “We’re happy that more Americans were able to find work last month, but more and more people are dropping out of our workforce—giving up on finding a job.”

For Republicans to voice this level of concern for declined labor force participation requires a fair bit of chutzpah. Just a few months ago they successfully blocked the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed, and there’s reason to think the cessation of benefits is helping fuel the decline in the labor force.

Supporters of extending unemployment benefits argue that they are all that's keeping the long-term unemployed in the labor force – to be eligible for benefits, you have to demonstrate that you are actually looking for work. Opponents argue that extended unemployment fosters complacency among the jobless, and that ending those benefits will shock them out of welfare-induced passivity and spur them to get jobs.

The New Republic’s Danny Vinik revisited the long-term unemployment issue recently and found that in the months since Senate Republicans filibustered the extension of benefits, the rate of decline in long-term unemployment remained steady. In that time the unemployment rate also remained steady, until this month’s drop. Now journalists, liberals, and even a few conservatives are beginning to suspect that we’re finally seeing the impact of ending those benefit as the long-term unemployed give up looking for work.

“We could be seeing the delayed effect of the expiration of unemployment benefits for those out of work for (about) 27 weeks or more — that will probably be the argument laid out by supporters of extending those benefits,” writes Reihan Salam at National Review. “Since Congress continued to debate restoring the insurance (the Senate passed a bill extending it a couple weeks ago), it’s possible people stuck around the labor force in the hopes it would return, and are now finally dropping out.”

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn also suspects this may be the case. “One issue to watch: Are people dropping out of the labor force because, absent unemployment benefits and the inducement to keep searching, have they simply given up?”

The data are, of course, all preliminary and subject to later revision, as is the case with every jobs report. But on balance it looks like the GOP-led effort to block the unemployment extension has done more harm than good, and now they’re trying to make political hay out of it.

By Simon Maloy

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