Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
In this Nov. 4, 2010 photo, a sign turning away potential job-seekers is seen outside of a construction site in New Orleans.
Like most Americans, I support the ability of individuals to collect unemployment insurance for a limited amount of time. But in order to start solving the problem of long-term unemployment, this debate has to begin addressing the president’s broken policies that are making it more difficult to find work.
By historical standards, employment should be returning to the U.S economy at a much faster rate. On average, it took just over two years to recoup every lost job in each recession following the Great Depression. But five years after the 2008 recession began, the Obama recovery still has fewer jobs than before the downturn. In particular, private-sector job growth has lagged, creating an Obama “job gap” of more than 4.5 million jobs, according to the Joint Economic Committee.
By repeatedly supporting policies that have killed jobs and rejecting proposals that would have created them, the president has forced more Americans to need unemployment insurance for longer periods of time. The administration’s “solution” is to just keep people trapped in these programs without doing anything about the causes of long-term unemployment.
The truth is that government policies are causing long-term unemployment, creating barriers for low-income Americans to work their way into the middle class, locking millions of Americans in poverty traps, and preventing families who are barely making it from getting ahead. These policies unintentionally discourage almost every positive step underprivileged families can take toward social mobility and economic security.
Now is the time for a new, comprehensive anti-poverty agenda that not only corrects but transcends existing policies that cause immobility among the poor and long-term unemployment.
In an 1861 address to Congress, Abraham Lincoln said the “leading object” of American government was “to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
In a single sentence, Lincoln explains precisely what poverty is and what government ought to do about it. Lincoln knew that true poverty was not for most people an absence of money, but an absence of opportunity.
Then, as now, people were not isolated because they were poor; they were poor mostly because they were isolated. And so, in America’s original war on poverty, government did not give the poor other people’s money. It gave them access to other people.
In Lincoln’s era, that meant dredging rivers, building canals, cutting roads, the Homestead Act and land-grant universities. These public goods didn’t make poverty more tolerable, but more temporary. They reduced the time it took to get products to market and increased the speed at which knowledge could be developed and shared.
In the same way, Americans today do not lack the ability to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to flourish. But they absolutely lack the same access to the networks of human opportunity where that knowledge and those skills are acquired.
Utah can provide a good example for the rest of the country. A combination of smart, efficient government, an active and faithful civil society and perhaps the most successful private welfare system in the world has made Salt Lake the most upwardly mobile region in the country. And we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country to show for it.
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That’s why I have begun and will continue to pursue a reform agenda in Washington that begins to lift the artificial weights imposed by government. It includes streamlining our current welfare system so people can work their way into the middle class and stay there. Other reforms give more flexibility to state and local officials in our Medicaid and Head Start programs, refine prison sentencing to reunify communities and families, eliminate inequities in the tax code that hurt parents, and make higher education more affordable and accessible to low-income students.
Unemployment insurance can be a useful tool if it is used as a limited backstop. But extending unemployment insurance indefinitely is not a replacement for fixing the root causes of long-term unemployment and poverty. We need an agenda that connects people, fosters civil society and free markets, and gives Americans access to real, lasting opportunities.
Mike Lee is a U.S. senator from Utah and a member of the Joint Economic Committee.