On the left, Hillary Clinton is playing defense as Bernie Sanders and his all-but-unelectable socialist crusade surge ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire.
On the right, mainstream governors Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich languish while an angry GOP base hoists political wild-man Donald Trump and fire-breathing right-winger Ted Cruz to the top of the polls. In the memorable words of S.C. Sen. Lindsey Graham, it’s the political equivalent of choosing between being poisoned or shot.
Clearly, these are anxious days for the elders in both major parties. And they have no one to blame but themselves. They are so busy currying favor with the donor class that they’ve neglected the little guys – the everyday voters – who sent them to Washington.
What can they do to reconnect with the struggles of the working class? President Barack Obama gave them one good answer in his State of the Union address. He proposed offering wage insurance for laid-off workers who take lower-paying jobs. A person laid off after three years at the same firm can take a lesser job and see half of their lost wages replaced, up to $10,000 over two years – provided the new job paysless than $50,000 a year.
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That worker could also get much-needed retraining as manufacturing jobs continue to disappear. That could prove critical to helping laid-off factory workers get new skills for the future, even as they settle for low-paying retail and hospitality jobs so abundant at present.
The idea appeals not only to Democratic sensibilities, but should also satisfy conservatives who fear generous unemployment benefits discourage people from accepting lower-paying jobs. The White House didn’t immediately say how much the plan would cost, but has indicated it will be fully funded in Obama’s next budget.
Additionally, the president is calling for expanding unemployment benefits to 26 weeks nationally. That runs counter to 2013 reforms in North Carolina that cut weekly benefit checks and squeezed the length of benefits to a maximum of 13 weeks. GOP leaders say the change helped pay off a $2.8 billion debt to the federal government. True, but all they’ve done is make laid-off workers pay for business tax cuts the Democratic-controlled General Assembly rammed through in the 1990s.
Patrick Conway, chair of the economics department at UNC Chapel Hill, studied the effects of the 2013 cuts and found the jobless in North Carolina today are less likely than those in other states to find a new job quickly and are significantly more likely to give up searching for work. The “tough love” GOP lawmakers applied is driving laid-off workers out of the labor pool rather than forcing them into low-paying jobs.
State GOP leaders have shown that their allegiance to flawed supply-side economic theory runs deeper than their loyalty to blue-collar whites who vote Republican, but wish they had more to show for it economically.
Those families are getting harder to ignore. As much as they might hate Obama, his proposal speaks to the very real pain they’re feeling.
Congress has ignored Obama on wage insurance before, and our state’s GOP leaders rarely take his proposals seriously. But with Trump and Sanders on the rise, perhaps it’s time political elites in Raleigh and Washington gave this one a closer look.