December 27, 2013
Jimmetta Smith, of Lithonia, Ga., right, the wife of a U.S. Marine veteran, holds her resume while talking with Rhonda Knight, a senior recruiter for Delta airlines. (David Goldman / AP)
Jimmetta Smith, of Lithonia, Ga., right, the wife of a U.S. Marine veteran, holds her resume while talking with Rhonda Knight, a senior recruiter for Delta airlines. (David Goldman / AP)

With a growing debate between the centrist and economic justice wings of the Democratic Party (or, to use Bill Keller’s phrase, the center-left and the left-left), the centrists have been insisting on the primacy of job creation over a focus on inequality. I’ve argued this is a misleading frame, but I’m willing to set that aside for now in favor of a common purpose.

Because there is an immediate, all-hands-on-deck economic emergency that is happening tomorrow, when unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans expire. A couple Senators are looking to reinstate them, but the prospects aren’t great. Here’s Suzy Khimm over at MSNBC:

With jobless aid poised to expire for 1.3 million Americans this weekend, a bipartisan team of senators is proposing a short-term extension of unemployment benefits that will come to the floor as soon as Congress returns in January 2014. Sens. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, are proposing a bill that would extend unemployment benefits for three months. 

As has been well documented at this point, cutting unemployment benefits is insane, for three main reasons. First, they are keeping people in the workforce. When North Carolina slashed its unemployment benefits, the size of its labor force plummeted as people just gave up looking for a job. Probably, this means most of them will never hold another one. Second is aggregate demand. Automatic stabilizers, by distributing purchasing power into the hands of people who are certain to spend, prop up aggregate spending and keep the broader economy inflated. This is why austerity doesn’t work — or to put it another way, contractionary policy is contractionary.

Third, and most important, these benefits are all that is keeping many people off the street. Here’s Khimm again:

“My job search is my full time job. I’m sick and tired of people insinuating that folks in my situation are not looking for jobs,” said Deborah Barrett, a 57-year-old accounting professional from Rhode Island who has been out of work since February. Barrett…takes care of her elderly mother and doesn’t know how she’ll continue to support her family after her federal benefits expire this weekend. “I will do whatever I have to do—it’s petrifying,” she said. 

Even the budgetary implications are tiny. Reed’s bill is a measly $6 billion in a federal budget of nearly $3.5 trillion, and the budget deficit is falling like a stone anyway.

I’ve been ragging on the centrist brigades lately, even suggesting that their newfound focus on job growth might not be 100% sincere. But if they’ll mobilize fully behind an extension of unemployment insurance, I’ll eat my words. This is a simple, cheap issue that will concretely help some of our most vulnerable fellow citizens. So how about it, Third Way?