Republican governors are done sympathizing with the millions of unemployed Americans. In March 2020, Congress expanded unemployment benefits to offset the steep, sudden loss of jobs caused by Covid-19. But as of late May, more than three-quarters of GOP-led states said they would prematurely end the extra $300 payments, broadened eligibility, and longer benefit period.
Lawmakers in these 24 states say they are responding to claims by business owners that more generous unemployment benefits make people unwilling to come back to their jobs. But that complaint is more fantasy than fact.
Economists have pumped out reams of studies on the question of whether larger unemployment benefits make people hesitant to work. The findings are nearly unanimous: They don’t. One paper found that increasing unemployment checks in the pandemic didn’t cause a drop in employment. In fact, people kept looking for jobs at the same rate as before, and employers didn’t struggle to find employees any more than usual. We also have a recent test case: During the Great Recession, employment in states with more generous benefits looked about the same as in states with stingier ones. And when extra benefits abruptly expired last July, there was no sudden increase in the number of people working.
Why might this be? Even if an unemployment check is higher than what someone used to earn at work, we all know it’s temporary. A job, on the other hand, offers ongoing income, on which we smartly place a higher value.
What’s also clear is that the significantly higher unemployment benefits Congress offered during the pandemic have kept people from going hungry. When Congress finally passed a new increase in December after the previous one had lapsed, and also added another round of stimulus checks and increased food stamp benefits, the number of people living below the poverty line fell by 13 million.
Taking that lifeline away won’t goose the economy. There are good reasons some Americans find it difficult to work. For one, many families still don’t have child care. Only about half of schools have fully resumed in-person classes, and many child care providers haven’t reopened or returned to normal capacity.
And while we’re all relieved that the number of Covid cases is dipping, only around half of adults are fully vaccinated. The very states that are yanking away unemployment benefits are among the most sluggish at vaccinations. Meanwhile, mask mandates are disappearing even though service workers have no way to tell which customers are vaccinated and which aren’t.
Work, therefore, isn’t safe. And yet most employers refuse to pay a premium to bring people back. While wages in leisure and hospitality jobs have risen recently, they’re only just returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Even with these constraints, Americans are, in fact, heading back to work, even if it’s not as briskly as some would like. New unemployment claims have been steadily dropping in recent weeks and fell 48 percent between January and late May.
But apparently that progress isn’t fast enough for Republican governors. Collectively, the states that say they will pull out of the enhanced federal benefits are expected to kick as many as 4.1 million people off the rolls this month.
This should come as no surprise. Conservatives have long been hell-bent on trying to force Americans to work by threatening to take away benefits if they don’t. They have, for example, touted work requirements in cash welfare assistance, a stick meant to coerce the poor into taking jobs in order to receive financial assistance. We’ve learned since they were instituted that they don’t increase work. What they do is leave more people impoverished.
Even before Congress passed extra unemployment benefits, Republicans were warning that they would punish people for not working. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, then Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said he didn’t want workers “to become dependent on the unemployment system.”
GOP lawmakers at all levels seem determined to create a pool of workers so financially desperate that they’ll work for whatever meager pay employers deign to offer. It’s a barbaric way to treat people, and it betrays a bleak vision of our fellow Americans. There is no crisis of laziness. The only real crisis is that we haven’t ensured that people can go back to meaningful, remunerative work.