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  1. Opinion

Blumner: It doesn't pay to be jobless

Published Jul. 15, 2013

Leave it to Rush Limbaugh to bellyache about the good life of the unemployed.

Limbaugh is part of a conservative push to paint people who have lost jobs during the worst economic downturn in recent history as welfare queens. It's a way to justify cruel policies to cut jobless benefits in nine states, most recently in North Carolina.

On his radio show last week, Limbaugh sounded off over the cellphones, flat screens and food(!) enjoyed by people without jobs.

"Being unemployed is not what it used to be. When you were out of work, you were in dire circumstances," Limbaugh reminisced. Nowadays, "what's the incentive to work?" he asked, implying that government benefits are too generous.

Yes, what life must be like living on the average unemployment check of $300 per week, or $230 a week in Florida, the state where Limbaugh resides in a Palm Beach compound worth tens of millions of dollars.

This view is part of the Republican meme. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, argued a few months ago on the Senate floor that unemployment benefits keep people from job-hunting, "because people are being paid even though they're not working."

It's simply not true. The problem is a lack of jobs, not a dearth of motivated job-seekers. There is only one available job for every three people looking for work.

But by transforming the unemployed –- who could receive unemployment compensation if they lost a job through no fault of their own and who need a financial bridge until they can find another one – into malingerers bilking the system, politicians are magically absolved of responsibility to help. In fact, the best action the state can take is to motivate these people to be self-reliant by making them more desperate. See: the world according to Paul Ryan.

North Carolina has taken this bit of gospel and made it policy. After the state came under full Republican control in January, it cut the length of jobless benefits from the standard 26 weeks to as few as 12 weeks. It also reduced benefits from a maximum of $535 per week to $350, which automatically resulted in the federal government cutting off emergency unemployment benefits to 71,000 residents.

North Carolina would rather turn away more than $700 million in federal money that would be quickly spent and feed the local economy than maintain a lifeline for the unemployed.

But the state is just following Florida and the seven other mostly Republican-controlled states that have permanently reduced unemployment benefits to one degree or another.

Florida's state benefits are now down to 19 weeks and could go as low as 12 weeks due to changes passed in 2011 under Republican Gov. Rick Scott. (Though federal benefits are still available thereafter.) In addition, only about 17 percent of Floridians eligible for benefits actually receive them — the worst rate in the country. A complex online process makes it so hard to apply that the U.S. Department of Labor said it violates the civil rights of people with disabilities and those who have difficulty with English.

Even if we put compassion aside, this intense effort to end benefits and force unemployed people into any job no matter how menial or low-paying is shortsighted for state economies.

Do we really want an engineer to take a job as a restaurant server because she can't afford to look for a job on a reasonable par with the one she lost? The low wages she earns will result in her family qualifying for public benefits instead of paying significant taxes. How does this serve the state's long-run interests?

It is a bizarre world view that says struggling Americans laid off during a recession are "moochers" if they receive unemployment insurance or food stamps, but not when they take farm subsidies, private school vouchers or any form of corporate welfare.

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