Weekly Briefing

Simply shameful

The legislature’s cruel refusal to renew unemployment benefits is a new low point in government malfeasance

This is the fourth week that thousands of North Carolina families are doing without unemployment benefits to which they are entitled. It’s hard to overstate what a shockingly reprehensible state of affairs this constitutes.

Think for just a moment about what’s been happening in all of our names:

* In mid-April, unemployment insurance benefits ran out for 37,000 out-of-work North Carolinians and their families.

* Under federal law, however, North Carolina leaders had (and have) it in within their power to renew those benefits for up to another 20 weeks with the mere stroke of a pen. The bill to extend the benefits is simple and straightforward; it could be passed and become law in a matter of just a few hours.

* Last and most amazingly, extending the benefits would not impact the state budget – the cost would be borne by the federal government!

* Unfortunately, as has been explained in this space many times, House and Senate Republicans have callously refused to extend the benefits unless, in essence, Governor Perdue agrees now to overall state government spending targets for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. 

Got that? House and Senate leaders are holding 37,000 families hostage to get their way on a totally unrelated matter.

What’s at stake

So what does this mean in the real world? What is the “on-the-ground” result of this shameful and mean-spirited action?

It means this: Thousands of good and honest families who love their kids, their neighbors and their pets are doing without an average of just over $300 per week (or $45 per day). It isn’t much. In fact, it’s a scandalously low amount of money. But it can be the difference between surviving with some modicum of dignity and simply not doing so.

If you think this is an exaggeration, read Sarah Ovaska’s story last week about Christy Zemcik and her daunting struggles. (Note: Sarah will have another case study out shortly).

Or read some of the poignant comments posted on the NC Policy Watch blog, The Progressive Pulse, in recent days – comments like this one:

“It’s hard to find work out here… I was in management before I became unemployed and now I can’t even get hired as a WAITER! I have twin sons and already been evicted in these weeks their holding us hostage. This is just a situation that I wouldn’t of dreamed of.”

And this one:

“I am one of these 37,000. I have 3 kids. I was laid off from my manufacturing job in late 2009 and have been advertly trying to seek other employment. Those benefits were the ONLY means of income and support that I had. Me and babies are going to be thrown out in the street if something isn’t done soon. I can’t even afford gas to continue my job search at this point.”

And this one:

“All we can do is pray. The Republican Party claims to be so Christian. Yea, right. It really looks that way huh! Remember this in 2012 people. I hope all the poor Republican can now see the light. Is this what Jesus would do. There are people losing everything and being thrown out in the streets while the Fat Cat Republican do nothing to help.”

And these two from the same commenter:

“Of the 37,000 impacted, several are also tornado victims. A double slap in the face. Others are rolling off Tier 4 on Federal and are now behind the 37,000. A friend had to move out of his house, rent it and move in with relatives as of the 16th he has no income. Another’s electricity will be cut off tomorrow. One cannot fill medicine as her family has to eat. Another cannot afford gas for his car and is facing eviction. The stress this is causing individuals and families with children of all ages is indescribable. All the while our elected officials know each day that they will have 3 meals, water for a hot bath, electricity to run the AC, gas for their vehicles and that their mortgage payment will be on time.  Many of us are in our late 50s and early 60s and have worked all of our lives. This is the first time we have been unemployed.”

“Since writing the statement below, one friend who has a wife and two children had his electricity cut off yesterday. If benefits are not reinstated they will be evicted at the end of May. I have also just been told that a 50 year old woman who had no family and was evicted killed herself. As there has been no media mention of this I am not sure as to the validity of that statement. However, I do understand that people just get tired some times and my heart broke upon hearing this at all. I have worked for over 40 years and had hoped to be treated better than this.”

While there is reason to hope that at least some of the 37,000 may have found some kind of work in recent weeks, there can be no doubt that most of these people are suffering mightily.

So, what’s next?

In response to a question on the subject at a press conference this morning, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said there has been “no movement on that, for now” but that he was hoping to hear from Governor Perdue about the possibility of a “compromise.”

To which, of course, a reasonable person might ask: “Compromise on what?”

There’s no debate or difference over what needs to be changed in the law to get the benefits to kick back in. Bills that would address the issue were introduced several weeks ago in both the House and the Senate (the latter with a Republican co-sponsor). The only evident “compromise” would be the one in which Governor Perdue somehow acquiesces to the original Republican ploy of mixing unemployment apples with state budget oranges.

Or perhaps, the “compromise” might involve the latest mean-spirited conservative proposal – a bill that would require unemployment insurance beneficiaries to engage in “volunteer public service” in order to receive their gargantuan benefits.

Whichever the case, the very notion that Berger is still touting this harebrained idea – i.e. that the extension of benefits (something that should have been quick and automatic) should be linked to any other extraneous issue – is simply remarkable. Berger, House Speaker Thom Tillis and their colleagues are literally putting the lives and wellbeing of thousands of innocent people in jeopardy and yet, it seems, to them, it’s all just a game. They ought to be ashamed.

Of course, when you think about it, maybe it’s not so remarkable. The budget approach that both men have already endorsed for fiscal year 2012 takes a similarly heartless and illogical approach.

Once you’ve already gone down the road of promoting policy changes that intentionally harm millions of average North Carolinians in the service of an extreme and discredited ideology, perhaps it’s not that much of a leap to harm several thousand innocent people even more directly and immediately in order to get your ideas passed.

Whichever the case – be it heavy-handed clumsiness or Machiavellian manipulation – it’s emblematic of a very sad day for North Carolina.