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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: On jobless benefits, lawmakers have it backward

It’s fascinating to watch the shift in emphasis on jobs and the economy in the past few months. During the fall campaigns, the narrative was a paucity of jobs and the disappointing performance of stimulus measures in creating more of them. Now the growing sentiment in the party that had a successful election is that the unemployed themselves are the problem and that the economy won’t rebound until they get off their duffs.

The average Idahoan on unemployment benefits collects the equivalent of six bucks an hour, or about $240 a week. From this short stack of bills, they must pay for their housing, utilities, food, transportation and other necessities.

Some people look at that and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Others say, “Stop the gravy train! Get back to work!”

Last week, eight North Idaho legislators were among those who failed to persuade their colleagues that accepting an extension of federal unemployment benefits at no cost to the state would be a bad idea.

“If we continue this, all we are going to do is enable,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.

“I think we would be better off to get people back to work, try to get the economy flowing,” said Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries.

But not all of this backhanded compassion flowed from the Panhandle. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, had this lovely thought: “It’s time to lead the horse away from the trough and make him go to work.”

It’s at this point I have to ask, which came first: the economic calamity or the high unemployment rate? It seems these “get-a-job!” lawmakers have a shorter memory than the poor sap from “Memento.” Didn’t see that movie? It was about a man trying to solve a mystery. Complicating matters is the fact that he was conked on the head and can’t remember anything beyond a few minutes, so he takes copious notes and has key facts tattooed to his body.

So, Mr. and Mrs. Short Term Memory, get those sticky notes ready, because here comes a recap:

The recession began in December 2007, though the U.S. jobless rate then was a mere 4.7 percent. As always, unemployment lags a declining economy. By the end of 2009, it stood at 10 percent. Just like that, 8 million jobs evaporated.

OK, so these folks lost their jobs through no fault of their own, but maybe they grew to love their stress-filled, esteem-sapping days of channel surfing and bill dodging. If we just cut off their checks, they’ll trade their robes for work boots, right?

Um, what work?

Those who think of it as “unemployment assurance” ought to listen to Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover: “In Bonner County, we have 2,700 people on our unemployment rolls, and the Department of Labor is showing 60 jobs.”

A January report from the Idaho Department of Labor contains the sobering details, so skeptics take note. From August 2008 to August 2009, the state shed 50,000 positions, or 7.5 percent of total jobs. What’s more, 3,250 employers have disappeared since the recession’s onset, taking more than 26,000 jobs with them. Only five states have lost jobs at a higher rate than Idaho.

For every job opening, there are three to five people looking for work. Still think that $240 a week is too tempting? In Washington state, the average check is $370 and the unemployment rate is lower.

And yet, there is Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who, according to the Idaho Reporter, said: “We are telling people that unemployment is not a bridge, but a highway.”

Sure. A highway to hell.

Because jobless-benefit foes lost the argument, Idaho will get a $65 million infusion of money via the federal extension. Most of this money will be spent, which is good news for the businesses that will benefit. Many of them are still teetering on the edge and can use all the consumer spending they can get. Who knows, they may even survive and start hiring.

One final note about “Memento”: The story is told in reverse order, just like the blame-the-jobless narrative.

I almost forgot.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.
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