The war on the unemployed

Why Republican states are cutting off jobless benefits

An anvil.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

For the American economy to run properly, a certain portion of the working-age population must be poor and, preferably, a little bit desperate.

Or so you would think, given the hysterical reaction to last week's report showing the country's job growth lagged far behind expectations in April. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce bouyed this message with a response suggesting workers have grown too fat and sassy while collecting unemployment benefits made more generous by Congress during the pandemic.

Best to cut off those benefits, instead.

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"The disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market," the organization said in a written statement. It added: "One step policymakers should take now is ending the $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefit."

A few GOP-led states — Arkansas, Montana, and South Carolina — jumped at the Chamber's suggestion, saying they will soon end their participation in the federal program that pays out the extra $300 a week to jobless workers. And Republicans in Congress said they would move quickly to phase out the benefit, which is already slated to end in September.

"What was intended to be a short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement, incentivizing and paying workers to stay at home rather than encouraging them to return to the workplace," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said in a letter ordering the cutoff.

In normal times, South Carolina's unemployment benefits are on the stingy side, ranging from $42 to $326 a week before taxes, for a maximum of 20 weeks. Like most state programs, those benefits don't come close to covering a worker's basic expenses — the state's median monthly rent alone is $894. Without the federal supplement, unemployed workers in McMaster's state will be under added pressure to take low-paying jobs or be left behind entirely. Which, it seems, is precisely the point. If unemployed workers aren't already desperate for a new job, they will be soon.

This hostility toward the unemployed will come as no surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to the more predatory aspects of American capitalism, or who recoiled last year when Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) suggested that older COVID-vulnerable citizens should be willing to lay down their lives for the economy, or who noted that Republicans resisted supplementing unemployment benefits even at the beginning of the pandemic when the economy was contracting by millions of jobs and those who could keep working risked exposure to a dangerous and deadly new virus. Even then, GOP officials were fearful that workers would find it too easy to sit at home.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons an unemployed American might not be returning to work at the moment. The pandemic isn't over yet, and some individuals might be hesitant to risk their health. Childcare is still in short supply — job numbers for women were brutal in the April report, as they have been throughout the pandemic. (Of course, Republicans are also fighting President Biden's proposal to help parents pay for daycare.) Some people are simply reassessing what they want out of work, after COVID caused such a disruption to their lives and careers.

And yes, money is an issue, too.

One sector in which the worker shortage has been very evident is the restaurant industry. Story after story after story from across the nation has focused on the plight of restaurant owners who can't find enough staff to resume normal operations. But those jobs typically pay subsistence-level wages. Nationally, the median pay for food and beverage workers is $11.63 an hour, or just more than $24,000 a year. The federal poverty line for a family of three is just under $22,000. Some former restaurant workers are wondering whether it is time to find better-paying employment.

"If I can make $17 per hour at an Amazon warehouse but only $14 per hour as a line cook, a notoriously hot, stressful, intense job, why would I do that?" one restaurant executive told The Washington Post, describing the thinking of his former colleagues.

This is a good time to note that financial aid has worked. Thanks to the unemployment supplement, stimulus checks, and expanded food stamps, American hunger rates fell in March to their lowest level since the pandemic began — even though poverty spiked at its highest rate during the same period. Republicans have made a lot of loud noises lately about being the new "party of the working class," but their eagerness to dispense with unemployment benefits suggests that they aren't much interested in the economic well-being of their prospective voters.

In any case, it is not apparent that going jobless really is all that beneficial for those who aren't working: The Chamber of Commerce says its analysis shows that just one in four recipients of expanded unemployment benefits are taking home more now than when they were working. That means 75 percent of recipients are doing the same — or, more likely, worse — than they were before. Cutting off the federal supplement will make life even harder for those people. Is that what Republicans want? Maybe it is.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.