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Finally, Republicans Find Their New Welfare Queens

If you’ve been watching the Republican presidential debates, you’ve likely heard a surprising amount of talk about welfare reform. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum identify the 1996 law, which the Republican Congress eventually forced President Clinton to sign, as their signature achievements, emblematic of the kind of policies they would pursue as president. Even the logic, if you can call it that, behind Gingrich’s proposal to have schoolchildren work as janitors is lifted straight from the most extreme rhetoric of welfare reform: that poor kids live in neighborhoods where no one at all works, and thus need to be exposed to real labor.

The problem for Republicans after the welfare reform law passed was that, having achieved the victory, they no longer had the issue: The specter of the non-working poor could no longer be reliably evoked, and nothing with a similar power to divide voters has emerged to take its place. They tried going after the “lucky duckies,” those people who pay no federal income tax, but that hasn’t really caught on. Affirmative action has faded as an issue.

But now they seem to have found it, in the most unlikely of programs: Unemployment Insurance. The legislation to extend the payroll tax cuts that passed the Republican-controlled House on Wednesday brings the full arsenal of welfare reform gimmicks to the UI program: Time limits; drug tests; requirements to seek work or enter an education program.

None of these changes are intended to repair any serious problems within the Unemployment Insurance system. People are unemployed for long periods of time at the moment because there are four job-seekers for every one opening, not because they are happier collecting Unemployment. There’s no reason to think that UI recipients are more likely to use or abuse drugs than other adults. And, as anyone who’s ever been on Unemployment, or even watched the Vandelay Industries episode of “Seinfeld,” knows, there are already strong requirements to be looking for a job.

Instead, these moves are intended to break down public support for extending UI benefits by casting the program in the same terms as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the old welfare program. Much like arguments blaming the financial crisis on ACORN, Fannie Mae, and the push for low-income homeownership, it shifts the responsibility for unemployment onto the unemployed themselves. This has been in the making for a long time: University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan has been grabbing scraps of evidence for years to construct a thoroughly discredited argument that the unemployed are jobless largely by choice, and that Unemployment Insurance shields them from the necessity to take a job that pays less than their old job.

Although I opposed welfare reform in 1996, as a staffer to a Senate Finance Committee member, there was at least a grain of truth to some of the concerns about the program: It didn’t do enough to encourage or create opportunities for those welfare recipients who could work, and getting those who could into the workforce would make them and their families much better off. But Unemployment Insurance is a totally different kind of program. Just to be eligible for UI, a worker needs a solid full-time work history, typically more than a year of work before becoming unemployed. That’s why younger workers, part-time workers, and women are less likely to qualify. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey this week revealed that only 22 percent of the long-term unemployed are currently receiving benefits, and barely half had ever received them. To receive benefits, you need to be more than just unemployed—you really need to have worked hard and “played by the rules” for a long period of time. These are not people who show any evidence that they are happier sitting idly at home.

Nor, really, should we want people to take the first job that’s available to them. When a worker with specialized skills acquired at some cost, whether to herself or her previous employer, instead takes a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart, that investment in skills is lost. That’s actually the genius behind the Unemployment Insurance system: It’s a brilliant way for industrial employers to manage the size of their labor force during recessions, and then bring them back when demand picks up. Employers pay into the system, and in most states help run it, because it helps them protect their investment in skilled workers. It’s the most pro-business social program there is.

And yet, in their zeal to shift the blame for joblessness to the jobless, House Republicans seem to have forgotten everything they should know about Unemployment Insurance, recasting it as if it were welfare. Strangely, many of the victims of this move are likely to be the GOP’s core constituency—UI beneficiaries are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and older—and it’s hard to believe they’ll take kindly to the idea that they only have themselves to blame for their current hardship.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.