Congress on the Long-Term Unemployed — Let Them Eat Cake?

The popular story goes that Marie Antoinette, when posed with the challenges faced by starving peasants, replied, “Let them eat cake.”  Historians dispute that she ever uttered the phrase so famously attributed to her, but the fact remains that the French government failed to address the basic needs of its citizens.  Today, the number of people who are considered long-term unemployed (out of work for 27 weeks or more and still actively seeking employment) is the biggest challenge facing lawmakers in our nation’s capital. The number of long-term unemployed remains stubbornly high—hovering at the mid- to high 30 percent range among all unemployed, and representing 3.6 million people.

Worse, data show that people who are long-term unemployed tend to fall out of the workforce at higher rates than those who remain unemployed for shorter durations. While some of those people are seeking new job skills though school and job training, most are simply throwing in the towel on work.

This leads us to the issue of Congressional action, or the lack thereof, on this issue.  Perhaps nowhere is this inaction more acute than with the failure to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. One side proposes a way to pay for the benefit extension, the other side rejects it.  An offer is met with a counter offer, which is then rejected.  And back and forth it goes.  Meanwhile, the families who stand to benefit from the extension—families struggling to pay for food, heat and other basics—wait for an extension of their benefits, which ran out last December.

On the job training front, things remain equally static. House and Senate negotiators are at odds on several key issues on the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization as we head into late winter.  There is still hope that an agreement might be reached before the press of must-do business, such as spending bills and the upcoming mid-term elections swamp the Congressional calendar. The clock is ticking, and while no one fears losing their head as did Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, there might be a few members of Congress who lose their seats if Congress fails to act.