by Robert B. Reich

America's long-term unemployed -- an estimated 6 million or more -- constitute the single newest and biggest social problem facing America.

Their unemployment benefits are about to run out, and the lame-duck Congress may not have the votes to extend them. (You can forget about the next Congress.)

The long-term unemployed can't get work because there are still five people needing work for every job opening. And the long-term jobless are often at the end of the job line: Either they don't have the right skills or enough education, or they have been out of work so long that prospective employers are nervous about hiring them.

They're also a big problem for the economy. Without enough money in their pockets, they and their families can't pay their mortgages, which keeps fueling the mortgage crisis. Nor can they replace worn-out cars and clothing, or buy much of anything else, which is a drag on the economy.

Yet Republicans and some "Blue Dog" Democrats in Congress say we can't afford another extension of jobless benefits. The deficit is too big.

But wait. These are the same members of Congress who say we should extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Extending the Bush tax cuts for the people at the top would cost more than extending unemployment benefits for struggling families without a breadwinner.

These families need the money. The rich don't.

Moreover, extending the Bush tax cut to millionaires won't stimulate the economy. That's because the well off spend a smaller fraction of their income than everyone else. That's what it means to be wealthy -- you already have most of what you want.

People without jobs, and their families, are likely to spend every penny of unemployment benefits they receive. That will go back into the economy and save or create jobs.

A Labor Department report shows that for every $1 spent on unemployment insurance, $2 are spent in the economy. If you don't believe the Labor Department, maybe you'll believe Goldman Sachs analyst Alec Phillips, who estimates that if unemployment benefits are allowed to expire, the American economy would slow by a half a percent.

Republicans are still spouting daffy Social Darwinism. Cutting taxes on the rich is better than helping the unemployed, they say, because the rich will create jobs with their extra money, while giving money to the unemployed reduces their desire to look for work.

Rubbish. The rich have all the work incentive they need. The top 1 percent is already reaping almost a quarter of total national income. That's their highest share since 1928.

Besides, the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the top never trickled down. Between 2002 and 2007, the median wage dropped, adjusted for inflation. And job growth was pathetic.

Jobless benefits don't deter the unemployed from finding work. In most states, unemployment benefits are a fraction of former wages. And as long as unemployment remains sky-high, there are no jobs to be had anyway.

The economic downturn was hardly their fault. If anyone is to blame it's the high-flyers on Wall Street who gambled away other people's money, and the rich denizens of corporate executive suites who have sliced payrolls in order to show higher profits (and get more money from their stock options).

So why reward the people at the top with an extension of the Bush tax cut? It would be far better to use the money to extend jobless benefits to hardworking Americans who got the boot.

Quick action is needed. Some 800,000 unemployed workers will run out of benefits next week. Another 2 million will stop receiving benefits by the end of December. Millions more after that.

The choice couldn't be clearer. Extend jobless benefits for struggling families. Don't extend tax breaks for millionaires.


Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the new book "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."


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