How Republicans Blamed the Jobless for Being Out of Work

And the racial boogeyman that informs the fact-challenged argument.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jul 21, 2010

The Senate has finally closed its four-month long ideological bludgeoning match over unemployment insurance, voting 60-40 yesterday to move forward with a bill extending the benefit through November for people who’ve been jobless for more than six months. After a final Senate vote, the bill will head to the House, where it will pass easily. So the demoralizing back and forth will come to an end–at least for the next four and half months.

On the surface, the debate has provided ground for an ongoing fight over the deficit. Republicans and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson insist that unemployment insurance extensions should not add to the federal deficit and should be paid for with budget offsets. But lurking behind the deficit discussion has been another, arguably deeper ideological debate about the social safety net itself. Over the last several months, Republicans have revived an idea that had faded from the public discussion during the boom years: The absurd notion that safety net programs like unemployment insurance create disincentives to work. 

As this debate has unfolded, there’s been typically little acknowledgement of just how much race informs it. With unemployment rates as racially skewed as they are–blacks and Latinos, young people of color and single moms are all way more likely to be without a job–the benefits-make-them-lazy assertion is weighted by familiar, if silent tropes about people of color and work.

The suggestion that unemployment insurance is the reason people aren’t working may seem absurd in a time of almost 10 percent joblessness, rising homelessness and record levels of participation in the food stamp program. The average unemployed worker has been without a job for 34 weeks. But throughout congressional debate over the past four months and on the airwaves and editorial pages, conservatives have repeated the theme over and over.

In March, when the hoopla was just getting under way, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, argued on the Senate floor that a jobless benefits extension would be counterproductive "because people are being paid even though they’re not working . . . if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

Sharron Angle, the Republican running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said in an interview a few weeks ago that she would have voted against the benefit extension:

because the truth about it is that they keep extending these unemployment benefits to the point where people are afraid to go out and get a job because the job doesn’t pay as much as the unemployment benefit does. And what we really need to do is put people back to work.

It’s plainly untrue that most jobs would pay less than the paltry, if essential benefit–an average of just $293 weekly. No matter. The Wall Street Journal nonetheless published an op-ed by Arthur Laffer arguing that extending the benefit "will make being unemployed either more attractive or less unattractive, and thereby lead to higher unemployment."

But of course there’s a serious chicken and egg problem here. As Paul Waldman writes over at Tapped, "saying that increasing benefits causes unemployment is like saying that the presence of oil-catching booms causes oil spills, or that rain is caused by people carrying umbrellas."

Even if unemployment insurance did somehow discourage people to go look for jobs, as Paul Krugman notes that can’t be an issue now, since there just aren’t enough jobs. There are roughly five job seekers for every opening, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of Labor Department data. And as Krugman writes, "One main reason there aren’t enough jobs right now is weak consumer demand. Helping the unemployed, by putting money in the pockets of people who badly need it, helps support consumer spending." 

In sum, the benefits of unemployment insurance far outweigh any potential disincentive to work. That’s plain, if we’re talking about facts rather than racially loaded ideology.

Two and a half million jobless Americans have been without assistance since they were cut off over a month ago and a failure to pass the extension now would have plunged another 1.2 million a month into economic no man’s land. (The bill will retroactively provide benefits to those who were cut off last month.) As my colleagues and I explained in the Applied Research Center report Race and Recession–which we updated on Colorlines earlier this month–people of color are feeling the recession’s worst results. These are the communities waiting most anxiously for this bill. (Scroll down for more.)

Moreover, the Republicans’ use of the deficit as the key objection to extending unemployment insurance is entirely a straw man. Yes, the deficit is a serious longterm concern. But Senate Republicans are hard pressed to get us to believe that their complaints are a genuine worry rather a November elections strategy. As Democrats have hammered home, the very Republicans who are yelling about the deficit now helped push through the economic policies that created it in the Bush era.

President Obama said as much this week when he called Republicans a "partisan minority." "The he same people who didn’t have any problems spending hundreds of millions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle class Americans….who really need help," he lectured.

When Bush entered office the federal books were in the black. By the time he left, the country had plunged into trillions of dollars of debt. Apparently Republicans only object to the deficit when there are politics or other ideological commitments at stake. And one of those commitments is the idea that helping the unemployed makes them lazy. It’s a fact-challenged argument that’s drenched in old ideas about lazy workers, who, over and over again, are cast as Black and brown.

Photo: Getty Images/Scott Olson