House and Senate negotiators yesterday said they’d come to an agreement on a deal to extend the payroll tax cut and extend expanded unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed for the rest of the year. The agreement proposes to avoid a painful repeat of December’s fight over the programs and suggests that Republican obstructionism may be in a moment of retreat. But the plan, which could still be derailed when it comes up for a vote, also includes a set of important attacks on the programs integrity.
The agreement would begin a process of retracting the extended benefit program for the jobless and allow states to test applicants to the program for drug use.
One provision would allow states to refuse unemployment benefits to applicants who fail drug tests when applying for jobs in fields that already require drug tests. The drug testing provision is a scaled back version of a more draconian plan that was included in earlier iterations of the bill that would have required drug testing for all benefit applicants. But, while the provision is weaker and may be primarily a face saving maneuver by Republicans who were unable to get agreement on a number of their most significant cuts, it’s nonetheless a significant victory for conservatives who seek to chop away at the reach of the safety net.
The provision will disproportionately impact low-wage workers who are both more likely to be unemployed and more likely to apply for jobs that require drug testing. It may be vulnerable to constitutional challenges if states actually implement these sorts of policies: many advocates argue that the imposing drug tests on the benefit program violates the 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search ans seizure. As I wrote earlier this week:
In May, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill requiring applicants to the state’s welfare program to urinate in a cup before being approved for the program. Just five months after the bill’s passage, a court blocked the law, finding it a violation of the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. If other states succeed in passing legislation they’re likely to face similar constitutional challenges, though state legislators may craft their bills to avoid the Fourth Amendment pitfalls.
In addition to restricting unemployed folk’s access to the program, the provision also significantly stigmatizes the unemployed. Though there are no signs that benefit applicants are likely to be drug users—indeed there are plenty of indications that that idea is an ideological fallacy—its inclusion will no doubt be followed by a growing number of state-based efforts to pass bills restricting access to the jobless program. It’s not clear if applicants will be responsible paying for their own drug tests. If that is the case, applying for benefits could become prohibitive for many.
The other significant piece of the agreement announced yesterday is that after 10 extensions of the expanded unemployment insurance program, this begins a process of the program’s retraction. If passed, the duration of jobless benefit receipt would fall from a maximum of 99 weeks to a maximum of 73 weeks in the next year. This would hit the long term unemployed as soon at it begins taking effect in the Spring and as time goes on, more and more will fall off the end of benefits.
The implication of the retraction is clear: Congress believes that economic suffering is now on it’s way to an end. Of course, suffering is not over. Unemployment is still high and folks who have been unemployed for long periods are even less likely to find new jobs than the recently jobless. This is especially true for black workers who face disproportionate long term unemployment.