June 6, 2021
I struggle to understand why so many conservatives work so hard to make life harder for those who struggle to feed their families or to pay rent.
The strains that COVID-19 placed on our economy made the lives of millions harder and harder. Millions of workers lost their jobs, the victims of the severe lockdown measures we needed to take to combat the pandemic. We also became more aware that many of those who continued to work in jobs that we now deemed so “essential” were paid poorly.
When Congress and the President recognized that the hurt was widespread and would not go away quickly, they began to debate federal action. Surrounding each round of action has been the worry that there was a great risk in giving people direct assistance. While individual businesses and entire business sectors deserved federal help to weather the storm, helping individuals meet basic needs risked creating a moral hazard that would linger well beyond the current emergency. If people did not feel the pain of poverty then they would not want to return to work, and the nation would be deeply hurt.
Former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl described this hazard when he criticized Unemployment Insurance in comments reported by The Guardian, “doesn’t create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work…unemployed workers behave irresponsibly, do not look for work because they are partly sheltered from the risks of such behaviour. In other words, if you are receiving $200 a week from the dole, your incentive to get a job that pays $400 a week is cut in half.”
With each round of proposed COVID relief came conservative voices to issue this warning. In debating how much special aid should be available to those who have lost their jobs and how this assistance should continue, conservative voices were quick to tell us that less and shorter was always better. Setting supplemental assistance at $600/week resulted in some workers being able to take home more than they had been earning when they had a job. Rather than see this as a sign that wages were too low, critics saw this a federal program to be stomped on.
With the economy slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels, those who see need as a sign of personal weakness want to end much of the government’s improved safety net as quickly as possible. According to a recently issued memo from Congress’ Joint Economic Committee almost half of the states are set on ending supplemental assistance as quickly as they can and not waiting for the program to reach its scheduled endpoint, even though the program is Federally funded and requires no state funding. “24 states have made plans to end the emergency UI provisions in the CARES Act (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation – FPUC, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – PUA and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation – PEUC) more than seven weeks before the September 6 statutory expiration of the program. Twenty states will end all three programs (FPUC, PUA and PEUC) while four will only end the $300/week, federally-funded boost to unemployment compensation (FPUC).
There is evidence that these programs have made life better. Patrick Cooney and H. Luke Shaefer, reporting their research findings (University of Michigan’ Poverty Solutions, May 2021) found that Pandemic response efforts made lives better. Material hardship in U.S. households fell sharply following the passage of the COVID-19 relief bill in late December 2020, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021. “From December 2020 to April 2021, food insufficiency fell by over 40%, financial instability fell by 45%, and reported adverse mental health symptoms fell by 20%…Data from the past year suggest material hardship among U.S. households fell following implementation of robust federal income transfers and rose in the absence of government action…the success of the federal government’s relief measures may be due to the speed, breadth, and flexibility of its broad-based approach, primarily relying on cash transfers.”
Data also suggests that there is little reason to believe that most workers will choose to sit home in their reclining chairs because these benefits are just too good to refuse. Adam Chandler summarized what researchers have found about this canard in a recent Washington Post Op-ed. He concluded that this worry “ holds less water than it ever has. In the past year alone, study after study has debunked the myth that the emergency benefits and occasional payments provided by the government are disincentivizing people from returning to the labor force en masse. “We find no evidence that high UI [unemployment insurance] replacement rates drove job losses or slowed rehiring,” read onestudy by Yale economists last summer, back when enhanced federal unemployment benefits were $600 a week — or double the current amount. In a separate study of unemployed workers without a college degree last year, Arindrajit Dube at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found no evidence thatthe additional pandemic compensation passed under the Cares Act last year “held back the labor market recovery.”
Data be damned, the attacks continue, and conservatives speak and act, even when ending these benefits will have collateral damage among small and large business owners. These benefits which Governors and their Legislatures are rushing to rip away from their citizens are not being saved away in cookie jars for some future rainy day. They are being spent in grocery stores, retail shops, and restaurants. According to the Joint Economic Committee. Early ending of benefits will mean that “localities around the country will miss out on more than $13 billion flowing back into their economies…from June 19 to September 5.” Lost business that will pay the salaries of those who are already back to work and will recirculate multiplying the benefit even further.
Those rushing to end limit government assistance do not care that even at its most generous levels people are still going to be struggling to make ends meet. Seeing a program that might lift income levels above minimum wage and poverty levels as too generous tells much about the lens of the observer. It distracts attention from the real economic problem, an economy that cannot produce enough jobs paying a true living wage.
They choose each worker, not as a person like themselves but as a piece of “human capital” that is to be purchased, like other items, at the lowest cost possible.
They see nothing wrong in an economic system that is allowing the benefits of profitability and productivity to be hoarded by a few, as many more struggle with meeting their basic human needs, even when they work long and hard.
The data is there to help those who cannot, or will not feel the pain of the neighbors see the error of their ways. But we have reached a data-free moment in our national history. And that leaves too many of us paying for their cruelty with blood and fear.