Congress Fiddles While Constituents Starve

Just days after Christmas last year, extended unemployment benefits for millions of people in the US expired, with more set to follow in early January. The result was catastrophic for people who had been counting on those funds for survival in an economic climate where they had little to no access to jobs, social resources that might help them get stabilized, and other supports. Like growing numbers of people living in the US, they were left high and dry without many options for the next step.

What happened here? Numerous studies indicate that investing in unemployment benefits and welfare have a positive net economic benefit, converting into more local spending — the government gets back more than it puts in. Studies also show that people with large gaps in their employment history have more trouble finding work, meaning that people on long-term unemployment are facing a series of escalating obstacles as they search for work, and they may need their benefits more and more as time goes on and they’re passed over by employers.

There are numerous strong, defensible, compelling arguments for providing benefits and extending them when jobless numbers are still unacceptably high and people are clearly struggling. Such arguments should be a key component of making political decisions that will affect economic policy. If people in the US do not have enough money to meet basic expenses, let alone other needs, they’re not going to be spending money, and that means less money coming in for the federal government, and less stability for the nation as a whole, and long-term problems like children growing up in poverty.

However, the GOP effectively blocked the extension, trying to muscle the Democrats into cutting the budget to muster up more funds for supporting benefits on the grounds that they wanted to keep the budget balanced. Their move was clearly a ploy to put the matter off, as the GOP as a collective doesn’t support access to benefits and doesn’t believe that people in the US should be provided with social supports when they are in trouble — instead, the GOP favours bootstrapping, while curiously refusing to acknowledge that people get wealthy because they’re born into money, the same money that the GOP protects through measures like fighting the inheritance tax and demanding special treatment for wealthy people.

The GOP is not entirely to blame, however; the Democrats have consistently rolled on a variety of social issues. Critically, they’re also made the same choice the GOP has on critical voting dates: instead of staying and forcing a vote, the Democrats go home. Instead of turning up their noses at the recess and staying until things are done and protections are assured for people in the US, the Democrats throw up their hands and book flights home.

Some argue that they have families and communities and they deserve the right to be able to take some time off. Their constituents, however, do not have the same luxury. Many work extensively during the holidays, often without even receiving overtime or other acknowledgements of their hard work, while their children are left at home, missing the family members they need to celebrate. People working remotely and in far-off locations may not be able to make it home in time due to scheduling, and unlike Congresspeople, they can’t just decide to pack it in and leave, because the stakes are too high.

With its established recesses, though, Congress seems to think it can skip off scot-free once people feel like they’re done. It’s an illustration of how out of touch Congress is with the people who actually live and work in the United States. Members of Congress might not be able to actually get anything done during an official recess, but they could still be working. They could be making a point about where their support and loyalties lie, they could be showing their constituents that they know what it’s like to work in a bitter December cold that doesn’t want to let up, they could be demonstrating that Congress is actually interested in, and passionate about, the people involved in elections to get members of Congress there in the first place.

Instead, Washington empties out as Congresspeople skitter away for the holidays, seemingly uncaring when it comes to the fate of constituents waiting on vital legislation. Congresspeople are well-monied, and thus don’t have a great deal of understanding of what it’s like to live on a fixed income or to rely on benefits. They can’t imagine what it would be like to have benefits cut off, and assume that people have ‘resources’ like savings accounts or real estate or ‘something’ they can use to stabilize themselves while they wait for their economic fortunes to turn.

The fact that Congress by and large doesn’t recognise these very fundamental and simple issues is a pretty serious problem. Because this is supposed to be a representative democracy, and how representative is a Congress that doesn’t even really know its own people, and doesn’t seem to have an interest in getting to know not just those people, but their experiences? While food stamp challenges and the like are all the rage, they lack sophistication, and they’re just yet another reminder than being in Congress is primarily about wealth and power. Food stamps are a lark, a little vacation, a PR exercise, not a brutal reality, for people who are amply supplied with funds and support and never have to worry about where their support is coming from.