Are the working poor the new Welfare Queens?

Late yesterday I saw two posts over at the New Republic concerning what lay in the House GOP’s version of the payroll tax holiday extension bill. Specifically, there’s a concern over what the Republicans want to change in the Unemployment Insurance program. I spent some time looking over the text, but there’s a particularly interesting one page summary of the UI changes the GOP want to change. Prepared by the House Ways and Means Committee, and derisively titled “UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE: Helping those Struggling in the Obama Economy & Protecting Taxpayers By Reforming and Reducing the Overexpansion of Unemployment Insurance,” it lays out a veritable bucket list of conservative reform wishes. Here is the full text of that section reproduced:

REFORM UI

The legislation includes permanent reforms, most previously approved by the Committee on Ways and Means that:

  • Require all State and Federal UI recipients to (1) search for work, (2) be in GED programs if they have not finished high school (with commonsense exceptions such as for older workers), and (3) participate in reemployment services to help them get back to work.
  • Give States greater flexibility through federal waivers so States may innovate and operate better reemployment programs instead of just writing UI checks. These waivers are similarto those that led to successful pro-work Republican welfare reforms in the 1990s.
  • Allow States to screen and test UI applicants for drugs by overturning a 1960s-era Labor Department interpretation of Federal law.
  • Implement new data standardization processes to crack down on waste, fraud, and abuse as well as require States to reduce current UI benefits to recover past UI overpayments.

Jonathan Cohn particularly dislikes the first and third parts:

[…] Requiring a drug test establishes that if you are collecting unemployment you are probably a disreputable character. It’s morally repellant, but not particularly novel, since companies now routinely require lower-tier workers to piss into a jar as a condition of unemployment. (Upper-tier workers, apparently, never take drugs.) Many who are required to provide urine samples will have experienced this ritual humiliation before, and be relatively inured to it.

The GED requirement, on the other hand, is a new way to communicate that if you lack a job you must be deficient. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m as concerned as the next guy about the fact that the high school graduation rate hasn’t increased in decades. If you don’t have a high school diploma, or a GED, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting a job. But if someone is collecting unemployment who lacks either of these things we know that person managed to get a job in spite of this educational deficit–otherwise he or she wouldn’t be on unemployment. To require this person to enroll in a GED program as a condition of collecting benefits is in essence to say that you had no business being in the labor force to begin with. I can imagine that it might pose all sorts of practical problems simultaneously to start a GED program, look for a job, and jump through all the other hoops you need to to shake your unemployment check free from the state bureaucracy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on getting yourself a job, and then enroll, if circumstances allow, in a GED program? […]

And here is Mark Schmitt diagnosing the motivations behind the changes:

[…] 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. […]

There seems to be this insistence among some in the conservative persuasion of inaccurately describing reality because they wish to pursue unrelated policy objects – such as limiting the role of the federal government in federally mandated, state-administered Unemployment Insurance programs – that somehow seeks to confirm their pet biases.

I believe we saw something similar to this kind of close-minded conformation need in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s drug-testing TANF applicants. Like many people, Scott naturally assumed that people receiving “welfare” were more likely to abuse drugs. Since the program has been in place, though, only two percent have failed those tests. Which is considerably lower than the 6.3 percent national average.

Thus, trying to make a policy justification behind drug-testing UI applicants isn’t helped by evidence that those receiving government benefits do fewer drugs, and strikes me as largely irrelevant when there are four job seekers for every job opening. Furthermore, mandating GED requirements (especially for a program that is a condition of employment in the first place) strikes me as an unusually intrusive use of government power coming from a party that wants to get government out of your life. Yet if Schmitt is correct to assume that the GOP is looking for new “Welfare Queens,” then no amount of government intrusion may be unjustifiably in their minds. 

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