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The GOP push to cut unemployment benefits is the welfare argument, all over again

Job seekers line up outside the New Hampshire Works employment security job center on May 10 in Manchester, N.H. (Mary Schwalm/AP)

The White House is on the defensive over accusations from Republicans that expanded federal unemployment benefits, which were extended through Sept. 6 as part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, are too generous. The GOP argument is that people receiving the $300 weekly benefit (on top of whatever state benefits they might receive) have little incentive to return to work. The criticism from Republicans has gotten louder in the wake of a disappointing jobs report.

It’s an argument that echoes similar claims conservatives have been making about government assistance programs for decades — that people are taking advantage of the system in ways that allow them to collect checks while sitting back and relaxing.

“As Washington pays workers a bonus to stay unemployed, virtually everyone discussed very real concerns about their difficulties in finding workers,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday. “Almost every employer I spoke with specifically mentioned the extra-generous jobless benefits as a key force holding back our recovery.”

But Democrats counter that millions of Americans need that money to get by. More than 20 million jobs were lost in the early months of the pandemic; 10 million American workers are currently unemployed, the Labor Department says.

Democrats say the sudden demand for more workers from businesses is outpacing the number of workers that can get back into those jobs, especially since many schools aren’t fully open, and many workers can’t afford child care.

Plus, they say, the jobs employers are having trouble filling are low-wage jobs, often in retail or restaurants; a simple way to hire more workers would be to offer higher wages.

The idea that federal assistance programs encourage Americans to stay home from work is nothing new. Republicans used almost the exact same argument a few years ago, after President Donald Trump said he wanted the United States’ gross domestic product to grow by 3 percent.

“For us to achieve 3 percent GDP growth over the next 10 years from tax reform, we have to have welfare reform. We need people who are mentally and physically able to work to get into the workforce,” Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) said in December 2017. “In my district, a lot of employers can’t find employees. … Sometimes we need to force people to go to work.”

Of course, the special federal benefits in place now aren’t exactly the same as the welfare reform Blum called for — but both are arguments against federally funded financial aid for struggling Americans.

Trump made the same argument as Blum: “The person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his [or] her ass off,” he said at a Missouri rally that year.

And that Republican argument goes back decades. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan said it had become “common knowledge that our welfare system has itself become a poverty trap — a creator and reinforcer of dependency.”

While there isn’t a lot of hard data on welfare fraud, studies on specific programs show fraud is exceedingly rare. (In one program, a study discovered just $11 in fraudulently distributed money for every $10,000 spent by the program.) And Democrats say Republicans consistently prioritize tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, while trying to cut financial assistance for those who need it the most.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats are totally immune to the argument Republicans are making. Biden did say Monday that he thinks it’s important for anyone receiving benefits to look for a job — and can’t reject job offers in favor of staying on federal unemployment.

President Biden on May 10 said out-of-work Americans who are collecting unemployment benefits will lose those benefits if they turn down a suitable job offer. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

“We’re going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment,” Biden said at the White House. “There are a few covid-19 related exceptions … but otherwise, that’s the law.”

Coming just a few days after a disappointing jobs report, reinstating a work-search requirement seems to be an acknowledgment that at least the optics of the situation are bad. But Biden insisted unemployment benefits aren’t to blame for the disappointing numbers — it’s just a long road back from the kind of economic hit the country took because of the pandemic.

“I think people who claim Americans won’t work, even if they find a good and fair opportunity, underestimate the American people,” he said. “So we’ll insist that the law is followed with respect to benefits. But we’re not going to turn our backs on our fellow Americans.”