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If only Congress considered unemployment as urgent as flight delays

Our Congress will show up in response to the most visible and vocal victims of their policy-making. But what about when no one's watching?
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

Our Congress will show up in response to the most visible and vocal victims of their policy-making. But what about when no one's watching?

Well, will wonders never cease? This week, our Congress actually accomplished something.

Confronted with a problem facing the American people, they rallied to the cause, found common ground, and quickly enacted a policy solution. By a 361-to-41 vote, the House of Representatives on Friday approved Senate legislation to relieve travelers of flight delays they were experiencing due to the impact of the sequester.

Oh, yes—our Congress will show up and show out in response to the most visible and vocal victims of their policy-making—which incidentally also included the members of their own body who’ll be flying back home when the legislative session ends.

But when no one’s watching, and the victims are marginalized and rendered invisible by inattention, like millions of Americans among the long-term unemployed? It’s a different story.

Take a look at this photo, taken by National Journal reporter Niraj Chokshi. That was the scene Wednesday morning at a congressional hearing held by the Joint Economic Committee to figure out solutions to the problem of the long-term unemployed. A single member of the committee. And where her colleagues should have been–empty seats.

So my letter this week is to the Republicans and Democrats, Senators and members of the House, who were not in that room.

Dear Members of the Joint Economic Committee:It’s me, Melissa. Mind if I call ya J.E.C.?I get it.  A legislator’s work is never done. Days filled with dozens of hearings, back and forth to the Capitol for debates and votes, the obligatory press conferences. You can’t be everywhere at once. Inevitably some balls are going to get dropped. You’ve gotta prioritize, right?After all, immigration reform is imminent, there’s a terrorist attack to be responded to–and can’t forget those flight delays!Yes, you are there when it matters. Which can only leave me with one conclusion when I look at this photo, and see testimony about how to get the long term unemployed back to work, given before a room of empty chairs.To you, this crisis confronting our country simply doesn’t matter. And make no mistake this is a crisis–not just for those who’ve fallen into chronic joblessness, but also for the U.S. economy. It’s what the National Employment Law Project has called “the real cliff that threatens our economy.”There are 4.8 million people who have been unemployed beyond the six months covered by state benefits. People who have been out of work so long that they have just stopped looking. People whose joblessness marks them for discrimination by employers averse to hiring the unemployed. Who need you to be in that room, sitting in those chairs, figuring out the policy solutions that will get them back to work. People who–in the meantime–have only their dwindling savings and are relying on you to strengthen the social safety net programs they rely on for their survival. Since flight delays have got you all hot and bothered about the sequester, how about doing something about the sequester cuts that slashed federal unemployment insurance by 10%?Remember last year when talking about what you would do to restore the economy and create jobs got you elected? Well, now it’s time to actually do it.The absence of long-term unemployed people from the workforce means a smaller tax base, fewer people contributing to the economy, and the loss of valuable human capital from the labor market. Not to mention stresses on the lives of those individuals–increased risk of mental illness and suicide, divorce, higher mortality rates, domestic violence and academic underperformance by their children.Kudos to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and the three other Democratic members of Congress who recognized the urgency of this issue, and came to that hearing to address it.To the other 16 of you who had better things to do, it’s time to reorganize your priority list. Because if not, voters will be more than happy to put someone else in those empty seats.Sincerely,Melissa