Do we have a right not to work? The answer is we don’t if Democratic leaders stubbornly try to keep the “era of big government” confined to the 20th century.
Think of a barista right now in Georgia. She’s home collecting unemployment and watching her two kids while the schools and the café where she worked are closed. Her boss says they’re reopening next week even as the coronavirus continues its deadly spread, but schools won’t. Governor Kemp, along with other GOP governors, is using the horrifying tactic of threatening to kick workers off unemployment insurance if they don’t return to their jobs. What should she do?
This is the stark choice many workers are left with in post-”big government” America. Return to work and face a deadly virus when intensive-care beds are already nearly full in Georgia and her kids are alone, or stay home and risk losing all income. That so much of the current tension around a healthcare crisis focuses on a patchwork of complex, underfunded state unemployment programs speaks to the dearth of programs and policy tools available to sustain people when work is scarce or conditions are miserable.
Most people’s experiences with the stinginess and arcane rules of our nation’s patchwork of unemployment systems have conditioned us to assume that we’re not eligible and that we should be discouraged from applying, even under desperate circumstances. Blame it on steady erosion of our more than 80-year-old New Deal-era safety net and the decades of attacks on the idea of welfare, capped by Bill Clinton’s era-ending declaration that accompanied the catastrophic 1996 reform bill he signed into law with support of many Congressional Democrats, including our presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Our current crisis has exposed two flawed premises around how we think about money: that not all workers deserve enough of it to live on and that the government is incapable of providing it. Like our flagship retirement programs for those over 65 years old, Social Security and Medicare, income replacement can and should be for everyone. Universal, or near-universal, programs like unemployment insurance and Social Security are popular for a reason. They provide much-needed sustenance and promote the idea that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. Newer social programs have been replaced by stingier, more complicated models that means-test who “deserves” life-saving support. This breeds both unnecessary administrative burdens and resentment between voters who should be united in trying to improve conditions. According to One Fair Wage, 44% of all applicants for pandemic unemployment still haven’t received their benefits.
Worst of all, means-testing makes government programs easy targets and far less effective. Remember Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) that welfare reform killed? Sixty-eight out of 100 families received it in 1996, when it was replaced by far less generous Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In 2018, only 22 out of 100 received aid. The same has already happened to unemployment. Only 27% of unemployed workers received benefits in 2016. The average unemployment benefit (excluding the added $600 per week stimulus), which varies wildly by state, replaces just 38% of the average paycheck. And now the system is under unprecedented strain. Already underfunded, the flood of claims has jammed up government phone lines and websites. In New York alone, hundreds of thousands of workers are still waiting for their checks.
As a way to shore up bank accounts and put food on the table, unemployment was possibly our best option under the rushed circumstances of the CARES Act. But it’s a deeply-flawed compromise that, like the Affordable Care Act before it, utilizes a means-tested patchwork that deals Republican governors in on the implementation of a policy that many of them oppose. And like private health insurance, unemployment ties a critical safety net to the whims of a brutal job market that had hardly even recovered from the 2008 crash.
Many of the unemployed workers that we, a college administrator and labor lawyer, have spoken to have been reluctant to file. One, a building trades apprentice who was still taking her 40-hour OSHA safety class and hadn’t gotten her first work assignment, assumed she would be rejected for unemployment since she wasn’t laid off from a paying job. A stagehand who is not working while live entertainment is out of the question fears that filing would give the employer where he had recently helped form a union an excuse to fire him for “job abandonment.” A lawyer who lost his well-paid job hesitated to fill out a claim form because he felt the system was for “struggling workers,” not someone like him. He worried his claim would dry up resources for people who need it the most. Why should relief for them depend on their employers or governors?
One of the few bright spots of the CARES Act is that it will boost unemployment checks by $600 until July, pushing that wage replacement rate up to 100%. And it covers independent contractors. However, many workers will still be left out or shortchanged, including those whose incomes are too low to qualify, undocumented workers, and tipped workers whose unemployment benefits will depend on whether their employers reported their tips as income.
It is clear that the federal government will need to pass multiple rounds of economic rescue packages. Democratic leaders have to drop their pathological insistence upon means-testing benefits. On one side are Trump’s big promises of across-the-board benefits (bearing his signature), on the other is Republican lawmakers’ actual hardline bargaining to shovel money to corporations while keeping benefits as stingy as possible to force people to drag their carcasses to lousy, dangerous jobs. Caught in between, this is no time to limit expectations and pose as the “more responsible” party. Key to Democratic electoral fortunes is making voters believe that the government can be a force for good in their lives, and that means making demands and fighting like Hell to win them.
Congress’ bi-partisan zeal to swish-swish over one and a half trillion dollars for the initial recovery package puts the lie to every bit of “h0w D0 y0u P@y F0r iT” scare-mongering about universal programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal that were trotted out during the presidential debates. The next year will likely prove that both the recovery package and Sanders’ moderate platform are wholly inadequate for solving our looming economic disaster.
Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse who publicly fretted that the enhanced unemployment benefit might be — as Bernie Sanders caustically characterized it — “a few bucks more” than their paltry wage said the quiet part out loud. If a government-sponsored income replacement program gives workers the bargaining power to refuse to work without better compensation and workplace protections, would bosses have to take their lives more seriously?
No one should have to choose between unsafe, underpaid work or poverty and starvation. The point of unemployment insurance (and welfare) is to give workers enough bargaining power to reject unacceptable working conditions and to force bosses to make a job worth doing. We must focus on [expanding programs until there’s universal coverage. That means boosting benefits levels for essential programs like Social Security Disability and raising the federal poverty level ($26,200 for a family of four) to broaden eligibility to programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs and Medicaid. We should also restore welfare as we knew it before Bill Clinton dismantled the program. We must also explore capping the workweek and fully subsidizing education and training for those who want it. That’s something worth leaving the house for.