Job seekers wait in line to meet with employers at the 25th Annual CUNY big Apple Job and Internship Fair at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on April 26, 2013 in New York, NY.
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Will Democrats go to the mat on jobless benefits?

I wrote yesterday about how it would be a bad thing if Democrats’ economic populist agenda was limited to boosting the minimum wage, as important as that is. And today comes news that reinforces the point.

House Republicans and Senate Democrats are close to agreement on a budget deal. But right now it doesn’t include an extension of unemployment benefits, even though they’re set to expire for at least 1.3 million Americans.

This is a long way from over. Democrats are insisting on including a benefits extension in the budget agreement, and House Speaker John Boehner has said he’ll “take a look at it.” But Democrats haven’t said whether they’d make it a condition for supporting a deal.

If anything’s worth going to the mat for, this is.

If benefits aren’t extended, most workers would only be eligible for 26 weeks, or six months, of benefits. Right now, the long-term unemployment rate is at 2.6%, out of a total unemployment rate of 7%. That means around 37% of all jobless workers have been out of work for more than six months. In other words, more than one in three workers has currently been jobless for a longer period than benefits would run for if, they’re not extended.

On a human level, cutting off benefits would be cruel: It’s been clear for a while that most of the people out of work for this long aren’t jobless because they’re not trying hard enough—the justification that many Republicans have given for their reluctance to extend benefits. Instead, they’re stuck in a vicious cycle where being unemployed makes it harder to get hired.

And on an economic level, it makes just as little sense. Plenty of studies show that programs like food stamps and jobless benefits are a great way to boost economic growth—something we could still use a lot more—because poor people have little choice but to spend the money they receive, rather than saving it, so it’s an especially effective economic stimulus.

Remember when we had to endure weeks of stories about people who lost their sub-par healthcare coverage, and Obama had to apologize, and everyone was rushing to coming up with ways to avert this horrible catastrophe? Wonder if there’ll be a similar freak-out on behalf of the millions of people who,thanks to Republican callousness, are at risk of losing the benefits that are currently keeping their heads just about above water.

I wouldn’t count on it.