Safety net needed as we wait for help

Marketplace Staff Jan 14, 2009
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Safety net needed as we wait for help

Marketplace Staff Jan 14, 2009
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: You emember the S-chip debate from a couple of years ago — whether to bump up cigarette taxes to pay for an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program? S-Chip. Congress said yes. The president said no. Said it twice, in fact, with vetoes.

Today, the House said yes yet again as part of President-elect Obama’s promise of universal health care.

Commentator Robert Reich says that support is exactly the kind of thing people need until economic help arrives.


ROBERT REICH: The safety net created in the 1930s to protect Americans from extreme poverty is in tatters. Now that we’re in the worst downturn since the Depression, that safety net needs mending. This should be a key part of any stimulus plan.

Unemployment insurance, for example, was created in 1935, when most people who lost jobs had held those full-time positions for some years. But most people who are losing jobs now have not been in them all that long. Typically, the last ones hired are the first fired. And many job losers have only worked part time.

Either way, they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. In fact, fewer than 40 percent of people now losing their jobs qualify. So a necessary step toward mending our safety net is to get unemployment benefits to everyone who loses a job. And if it’s a part-time job, partial benefits.

And remember welfare? We started that program in the depths of the Depression. We officially abolished it in 1996, during the strongest job-creating recovery in memory. We substituted a new law that gives people a maximum of 60 months in their lifetimes to get aid for themselves and their kids.

Over the last dozen years, as more and more people hit that 60-month limit, the nation’s welfare rolls naturally declined — even though the percent of families in poverty stayed roughly the same, just under 10 percent.

But now as the economy plunges, many more families are moving toward poverty. So that 60-month limit should be lifted, at least until the economy turns up again.

Giving American families more economic security during this downturn isn’t just fair. It’s also good policy, because the money they get to buy goods and services keeps other people in their jobs. In fact, strengthening our national safety net is one of the fastest and most direct ways to stimulate the economy.

And after all, if executives on Wall Street and in Detroit deserve a safety net, why should American families be left out in the cold?

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is “Supercapitalism.”

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