Shock Therapy—and a Bit of Good News—for Long-Term Jobless in Wisconsin

Roger Bybee

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Back in 1932, Wisconsin was the innovative progressive state that created unemployment insurance to help the jobless weather the Depression, establishing a model that was adopted nationwide.

Times have changed, as anyone who’s followed news from Madison this year knows: These days, state officials aren’t so committed to providing laid-off workers with unemployment benefits as they search for another job.

Incredibly, the state legislature has waited more than two months to take advantage of $89 million available in federal funds to provide more aid to about 10,000 long-term jobless workers and their families. Jobless benefits ran out for those people on April 16. Yesterday, the state’s Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council finally endorsed legislation that would allow the $89 million to flow into the state and extend benefits by 13 weeks, to 86 weeks. (The council still has to draft the legislation and send it to the legislature, so benefits might not reach the unemployed for additional weeks or months.)

GOP Gov. Scott Walker officially supports using the $89 million federal funds — which won’t add a dime to the state’s indebted unemplyment fund — for extended benefits, but his April 25 statement on the issue was hardly designed to win over Republicans inclined against the additional jobless aid. I am of the mind-set that a further extension of benefits won’t create a single job or encourage citizens to rejoin the work force,” Walker wrote. State legislators could have acted months ago, but didn’t.

Only a handful of the nation’s most regressive states have thus far turned down the funds, which would provide $363 a week to eligible jobless workers. The rejectionist states include three from the South whose economic strategy has been based on the subjugation of workers coupled with federal subsidies– Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi — plus conservative Western states such as Alaska, Arizona, Montana and Utah.

Labor and advocates for the poor have been outraged by Wisconsin’s inaction. It seems to me to be crazy in a time of such high unemployment to not take this federal assistance,” declared Jon Peacock, research director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. The most recent figures on unemployment, released Wednesday, reveal a statewide uptick to 7.4% in unemployment. But that data generally masks the situation in the state’s larger and medium-sized cities.

That $363 a week amounts to $9 an hour, and no one is going to prefer trying to live on that if they can get a better job,” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, told me.

The idea of using the $89 million in federal funds to help Wisconsin’s jobless workers and their families has not been greeted with enthusiasm by some business representatives sitting on the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council, according to Neuenfeldt, himself a council member. The business side has not responded positively so far,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt.

The general position of the business elite was reflected in the comments of an influential state legislator: 

Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said he thinks the federally funded extended benefits give laid-off workers an incentive to avoid jobs that pay less than their old jobs and to keep looking for better work.

I believe there’s an indirect impact,” Vos said. “ . . . People might not take a $12-an-hour job because they want one that makes $20.”

Neuenfeldt scornfully labeled Vos’s comments silly and ridiculous.” He added, If jobless workers are turning down jobs, it tells you something about what those jobs pay.”


The current generation of Wisconsin Republican lawmakers and key business leaders and organizations believe that jobless benefits foster never-ending dependence on the dole, and lead workers to turn down jobs whose pay fails to meet what the Republicans see as the elevated expectations of the jobless.

This message — reinforced in callous terms by prominent national Republicans like Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl, Jim Bunning, and others — has made it easier for the Wisconsin GOP and business elite to pretend that the jobless are the cause of their own problems. 

Business leaders and Republicans have also been supporting the imposition of a new hardsip on the jobless: a one-week waiting period before workers can receive unemployment compensation. This provision was inserted into the new state budget, passed last week, without consulting the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council composed of both labor and management representatives.

The Joint Finance co-chairs Alberta Darling [a senator targeted in a particularly strong recall effort] and Robin Vos simply decided to put this in the budget without any discussions or negotiations with the Advisory Council, which is the way we have done things for 75 years,” Neuenfeldt said.

Another provision added by Darling and Vos implicitly suggests that the jobless are shiftless drug users whose conduct must be monitored closely so that they do not lose their motivation to seek work. This provision would mandate drug tests for recipients of unemployment insurance, with a one-year suspension of benefits the penalty for traces of smoking marijuana.

This requirement, which Republicans have been pushing in Florida and several other states, may prove to be illegal under federal law.


As Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Council, points out to Alternet,

Unemployment compensation is something that people pay into when they’re working, that’s not a gift from the state. If you are unemployed, you earned those benefits and you shouldn’t have to prove anything to anyone.

Darling and Vos are trying to make the one-week waiting period into an issue of saving the state $41 million to $56.2 million that would help to whittle down Wisconsin’s $1 billion deficit on unemployment funds borrowed from the federal government. 

But Wisconsin is essentially in the same position as most other states in owing money to the federal government, so no urgent crisis demands that benefits be cut for families of the jobless who are barely surviving, says Neuenfeldt. Yes, the fund is in the red, but we can’t solve the problem on the backs of jobless workers who didn’t create the current economic crisis,” retorts Neuenfeldt.

Nonetheless, the Republicans are desperately attempting to persuade the public that Scott Walker’s job-creation plans — more tax cuts for corporations — would be generating more new jobs if only the jobless would be sensible and seize low-paying opportunities.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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