At the end of 2013, Congress tentatively agreed to extend expiring unemployment benefits immediately upon its return in 2014. They voted on Feb. 6, and the bill failed a cloture vote by a margin of 59-41. You read that right. Failed—with 59 votes out of 100. Even while the solidly Republican House of Representatives would likely not act if the bill were passed, the Senate vote was a symbolic failure, and the most recent of many middle fingers that certain members of Congress have flipped in the direction of America’s middle class.
Because 41 Senators decided to vote against cloture, millions of Americans now no longer receive the benefits they need to pay off bills, put food on their tables, or even get to job interviews. Furthermore, President Obama proposed a hike of the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, which, while it has been applied to federal contractors, has still not been enacted in workplaces nationwide.
Congress needs to get off its tail and extend unemployment benefits. The minimum wage must go up as well. Both these initiatives would provide significant boosts to the still-lagging economy, as lower- and middle-class citizens would have a few hundred more dollars every month to spend on necessities or the occasional pleasures. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the United States is missing out on 200,000 jobs that could be created in 2014 with an extension, and a report from Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee indicated that the country lost $400 million from its economy one week after benefits expired.
An increase in the minimum wage would also put more money in the pockets of American consumers. A CBO report on the proposed $10.10 minimum wage shows that real income would increase by $5 billion for families under the poverty line, boost their average family income by 3 percent, and lift 900,000 people out of poverty. It is also about time the minimum wage is raised, since the last hike occurred over five years ago. Also, according to a 2012 Center for Economic and Policy Research study, the minimum wage would be over $20 per hour if it were adjusted to keep pace with productivity from 1968 to the present day.
American workers are suffering, and we have to help them. Our government has not served the people. Congress settled for one stimulus that, while slowing the economy’s freefall, did not provide the extensive job programs necessary to get people to work. After a few years of watered-down bills meant to provide at least some help to the struggling middle class, Congress was afflicted with severe polarization, sacrificing people’s livelihoods for the sake of petty political fights. Now our economy has been strangled with sequestration and tax hikes in an attempt to solve a nonexistent debt crisis. The deficit may have gone down, but the burden of the cost has fallen on the middle class because Congress ignored the economic truth that a government must spend to escape a recession even if it means raising the deficit, and then pay off the deficit when the economy is at full strength.
Now we are stuck in a nearly permanent state of deficit-hawk austerity and sluggish economic growth. President Obama and Congress must act. They need to pass an unemployment benefit extension as soon as possible and then raise the minimum wage. Fortunately, the president has proposed a 2015 budget that would increase spending on domestic programs like education, job training, and energy efficiency that can all help boost the economy and keep it strong in the years to come.
Not many of us at Georgetown are directly relying on unemployment benefits, but we all know someone who is on them, whose parents are on them, or who relies on a minimum wage job. Most students here work for minimum wage or close to it. While the District is ahead of the curve on this issue with its upcoming minimum wage raise to $11.50 by 2016, those who work in Maryland, Northern Virginia, or at home over the summer will need this raise to bring in more money to be able to spend at school or to pay off student loan interest a bit early. Of course, all of this is for naught if the Republicans play their typical spoiler role and continue to block any sort of progress. We can only hope that they come to their senses, but then again, that probably won’t happen any time soon.