Ronald Regan’s ‘welfare queen’ rhetoric propagated the myth that many Americans are lazy good-for-nothings who would take any opportunity to not work, a slander on working people that did not seem to hurt his popularity with the working class, perhaps because many people believes it to be true of other people, not themselves. The reason for pushing that myth was to justify cuts in benefits to the poor (“It is for their own good, so that they learn the value of work.”) in order to give tax cuts to the rich. Neoliberal Democrats like Bill Clinton also seized on it continue the cuts, in the name of ‘ending welfare as we know it’.
The ruling classes never miss an opportunity to seize on any news that they think will perpetuate that myth. The latest example came in the wake of last week’s jobs report where the addition of new jobs was just a quarter of the expected figure. Andrew Perez and David Sirota write that this news, and some anecdotes about some fast-food franchises not being able to hire workers has led this myth once again making the rounds among our politicians and pundit class.
[Republicans] have exhumed the Gipper’s incendiary “welfare queen” language, alleging that employers today are being oppressed by lazy unemployment beneficiaries who are harming America by refusing to get off their ass and get back to work during a historic, deadly pandemic.
With other GOP senators, millionaire pundits, and millionaire lobbyists echoing this narrative, the idea of the welfare queen has been reincarnated and willed into an unquestioned notion, to the point that GOP governors are now moving to cut off federal unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of Americans in the name of rescuing families, communities, and the American economy.
Just as it was forty years ago, the story line is unsubstantiated bullshit. But it’s bullshit tied to a specific corporate agenda that the millionaires on your cable TV news won’t admit. The GOP goal is not to rescue communities or raise standards of living, but to instead use welfare-to-work demagoguery to re-create the Reagan record of skyrocketing business profits, boosted by subpar wages for workers. And this time around, that means Republican politicians forcing people out of their houses and into low-paying, risky jobs in which those same GOP officials have passed laws shielding employers from legal consequences if their cost-cutting business practices expose people to COVID-19.
For all their talk of market economics, today’s Republicans don’t want to allow supply and demand to force their business donors to compete for workers by offering higher wages, better benefits, and safer workplaces. On the contrary, as they block a $15 minimum wage, the GOP wants to cut off jobless benefits in order to continue what Politico rightly identified during the pandemic as “America’s hidden economic crisis: widespread wage cuts.”
They want businesses to be able to continue paying workers as poorly as they did before a pandemic changed the world, and they want people to have little to no recourse if they are infected with COVID on the job.
Since last week, at least sixteen Republican governors have announced that their states will stop paying out the federal unemployment benefits early, with end dates in June or July. At the same time, twenty-one Republican attorneys general have been demanding the Biden administration allow states to use stimulus money to finance new tax cuts.
The GOP governors are trying to win yet another one for the Gipper’s right-wing ideology — and their moves were a big victory for the US Chamber of Commerce, which has dumped $850,000 into the Republican Governors Association since 2018, according to data from Political MoneyLine.
Governors refusing federal funds to pay for extended unemployment benefits is not only cruel to those who for whatever reason cannot go back to work immediately, it deprives the states of money that could help stimulate their own state economies.
When it comes to jobs, these so-called advocates of free markets avoid the fact that if you cannot find workers, you have to raise wages. This is basic free-market orthodoxy that is jettisoned whenever the implications are that you have to pay people more. These people conveniently ignore the main implication of their argument, that it means that the meager welfare benefits are more desirable than the wages people might earn, which is a devastating indictment of how poorly many people are paid.
The radio program On the Media had a conversation with Heidi Shierholz, director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist for the Department of Labor during the Obama administration, who also challenged the narrative that the lower than expected numbers were an indicator that people were goofing off. She pointed out that the job numbers were actually pretty decent. It was only compared to the high expectations that they were disappointing. She also said that if you looked at the low wage hospitality sector, which is where you might expect people to not go back to work because the unemployment benefits are better, there was actually good growth. She also said that the pandemic has hit female employment particularly hard since women have been mostly responsible for looking after children, supervising their schooling, etc., making it much harder for them to get back to work.
You can listen to the 20-minute interview.
The relentless media narrative that there are plenty of jobs out there but that people don’t want them because they are enjoying the high live on unemployment benefits is false. If you pay a living wage that will allow people to afford decent care for children and loved ones, they will come.