Ron Bieber: Mean-spirited GOP attacks on unemployed workers must stop

May 21, 2021 4:48 am

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Over the last several weeks, the dated, racist myth of the “welfare queen” has taken on a new form as corporations and Republican politicians have worked together to advance a false narrative that unemployment benefits are incentivizing people not to work. 

Let’s get a couple things straight: First, the last president oversaw four years of middling job and income growth that culminated with a disastrously mishandled pandemic that the country is still fighting back to recover from. 

As we’ve worked to recover from the misery and mass death brought by the last administration, each month of Joe Biden’s presidency has seen more job growth on its own than Trump saw in total over his four years. But because of the wreckage left behind, it’s going to take some time for things to get back to a new normal, both because of the deadly virus still rippling through our country, and because of the millions of jobs destroyed by Trump’s embarrassing refusal to take that deadly virus seriously. 

The truth is, we already saw a test case for the effect that generous temporary unemployment benefits have on the labor market, when a $600 emergency boost to unemployment insurance was included in the CARES Act last year. 

Studies have shown that the presence of this benefit did not lead to employers having greater difficulty filling jobs — and another study showed that when it ended in July 2020, the country did not see major job growth as a result. This is partially explained by the fact that in many states, unemployment insurance only cover a fraction of wages lost

The sole piece of evidence being presented for this false claim is last month’s jobs report coming in over a quarter-million jobs added to the economy on balance, which apparently was lower than expected. But this report also showed that the largest increases in employment were in sectors that pay lower wages — so the workers who would see the largest boost from unemployment benefits are the same ones fueling the bulk of the economy’s growth right now, not staying home because they supposedly don’t want to work.

This ugly lie has been repeated for decades, but notably was adopted this week in a letter sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by Michigan’s Republican congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), heir to a Meijer family fortune worth billions. The letter claimed slashing unemployment insurance would lead to a “faster economic recovery” — an ironic focus for the party who oversaw historic economic devastation, but false nonetheless. 

It’s particularly upsetting to hear this from people who were able to use their status as members of Congress to receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as early as December, months before it was available to many frontline workers. 

In fact, research shows states with more generous unemployment insurance in early 2020 saw “milder declines and faster recoveries.” (As an aside, all of the data also shows that stay-home orders had little to do with job losses.) And the latest data does not show any evidence that Michigan’s recovery from Trump’s presidency is struggling, as our unemployment rate is now 4.9%, over a full percentage point lower than the national unemployment rate. 

It’s not surprising that Republicans and their corporate allies are using an economic collapse that happened when they controlled the White House and Senate to justify mean-spirited, disingenuous attacks on working people. But it shouldn’t be too much to ask them to use facts to guide their narrative — especially when that narrative would damage the health of our economy and, more importantly, the health and safety of the working people fueling historic economic growth across this country this year. 

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Ron Bieber
Ron Bieber

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. Ron is a third-generation UAW member, and the son of former UAW President Owen Bieber. Prior to his election as President of the Michigan AFL-CIO, he served as Director of the UAW’s Community Action Program.