When you’ve lost your unemployment benefits, like more than a million Americans this past weekend, there’s not much to look forward to in the current political environment. Members of Congress, convinced that they did enough to extinguish a do-nothing narrative, bounced quickly to enjoy their trees full of gifts and dining tables lined with gut-busting delicacies. And while you may have looked to the first family for public consolation, President Obama spent less than an obligatory minute on the topic during an hourlong presser—right before he skipped out of town for a warm, well-fed Hawaii vacation.
Which means the deal is done—there’s not much he can do about it, given the hard-fought compromise of a budget deal that no one likes.
So if you just found out that you won’t be getting an unemployment check this week—which means you could be out on a limb for such basic essentials as gas, food, heat and electricity—you might start paying closer attention to the reasons behind it. You might yell at the television when a roundtable of pundits mention the Hart Research Associates poll (pdf) showing that 55 percent of Americans support a jobless-benefits extension: “Then what the hell?” you ask in desperation.
If a majority support making sure I can set aside enough to make rent, you reason, what’s the problem with Congress?
But you miss the little bit about the 34 percent in that same poll (pdf) who want to cut it—more than likely representing a very white demographic who have believed for generations that people of color are the most ravenous recipients of government benefits (even though whites make up 42 percent of the poor and take in nearly 70 percent of those same benefits they decry).
That same conservative 30 percent or so keep blowing it all up in poll after poll. It’s enough to persuade most House and Senate Republicans, who represent that very red piece of the U.S. population, and nervous moderate Democrats fearing retaliation in 2014 not to make a worthy cause out of the issue. And while 65 percent of respondents in a targeted Public Policy Polling poll (pdf) monitoring five key congressional districts in California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio say they support extending benefits—even in House Speaker John Boehner’s district—that really active 30 percent who do not just keep showing up. You know: the 30 percent that make a hobby out of destroying GOP incumbents during their primaries.
So what was the most reliable lifeline for more than 1.3 million Americans is now considered an irritating extension of the “welfare state” by those 30 percenters, and they hold sway over a conservative caucus in Congress fearing Tea Party challengers in primaries. At last check in the 11th hour, two Senators—Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada—attempted to hurriedly craft a short-term three-month extension. But Capitol Hill, caring little about folks on their last financial leg, wanted its holiday break as bad as the kid of an unemployed mom or dad who wanted that gift they know the family can’t afford.
It’s not as if the unemployed—including those receiving benefits and those off the grid—have united into some mass political movement. Poor people, according to the wisdom of campaign managers, don’t vote like middle-class people do. Congress will listen if you’re a defense contractor who’s dropped tens of millions into lobbying to ensure the end of Pentagon budget sequesters. But if you’re an unemployed person on your last leg of benefits, you’ve barely got a dollar to dump into a political action committee. No cash, no voice.
As a result, this clearly isn’t much of an emergency to lawmakers in Washington. Nor is it that much of a sexy headline to network producers more concerned with the post-Christmas gift-returns rush than with the plight of more than a million fellow citizens being, literally, left to fend for themselves in the winter cold.
MSNBC made a last-minute front-page effort, but #WishList is what was trending on Twitter, and those with sanity and access have little patience for thinking about others. Most head into 2014 hoping for a better new year. But how much will that amount to if your neighbor can’t?
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.