You can tell when the propaganda machine is belching the same message on all pistons. You start hearing the groupthink’s identical fabrications bouncing from social media to local government boards to newspaper articles and comment sections. It happened after the election with that “stop the steal” smear. It happened after the January insurrection, when the con blamed the attack on Antifa agitators. It periodically happens when masks or the vaccine are reimagined as government conspiracies.
It’s happening now regarding unemployment and stimulus checks. They’re blamed for keeping people home. It’s a twofer: Business owners, politicians and chambers of commerce of a certain stripe blame the government for “competing” with the private sector by sending “handouts,” and they attack workers at the lowest end of the wage scale for staying home–as if crappy wages, questionable safety or a worker’s job market have nothing to do with employers having a hard time filling their ranks.
But accuracy isn’t the blamers’ concern. Belittling workers and lampooning government is. The motives are primarily ideological, part of the continuing war against better wages and stronger worker-safety protections.
It’s nothing particular to the covid pandemic but rather the periodic revival of Ronald Reagan’s original slur about the welfare queen who had 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and whose “tax-free income alone is over $150,000,” as he put it in so many speeches in the 1970s. Reagan biographer Lou Canon found out that the future president was lying, never a difficult task with Reagan. He was referring to a woman who was, in fact, convicted of fraud for using two aliases to collect 23 checks totaling $8,000. She was found guilty in 1977. But Reagan kept repeating the lie for years, never mentioning that the system worked: fraud was stopped. The fraudster was punished. And so the term welfare queen “became a not-so-subtle code for ‘lazy, greedy, black ghetto mother,’” in Michelle Alexander’s description in “The New Jim Crow.”
More recently we had John McCain’s claim that Obama would turn the IRS into “a giant welfare agency” or Mitt Romney’s slur about the 47 percent. Same misleading motive. Romney wasn’t wrong: 47 to 50 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. He passed over the slew of other taxes all of us pay regardless of income, with disproportionate effect the lower you go down the tax brackets, especially in Florida. And he called millions of retirees and working poor who don’t make enough to pay taxes freeloaders “dependent on the government,” fueling resentment from one set of Americans toward another and indicting social and government responsibility.
The same distortions frame current claims that businesses are either “competing” with government checks or that the unemployed are profiting off government’s dime. The stimulus checks were nothing to live on for very long. Nor is unemployment, even if you throw in the $300 from the federal government (which runs out in December), especially in Florida, the state with the stingiest unemployment system in the nation: your checks top off at $275 a week–the actual average is $235–and end after 12 weeks, assuming the unemployed is willing to put up with a gauntlet of requirements. (Mississippi, Arizona, Tennessee and Alabama have lesser or equal benefits, but they last 26 weeks).
No one can volunteer to be unemployed and still get benefits. Fraudsters aside, no one is profiting off that system: if an employer has invited an employee back, they can either go back or lose their benefits. If, as inevitably may happen on occasion, some workers are gaming the system, then blame the system, and blame yourself: there are plenty of measures in place for employers and government to red-flag and catch fraudsters.
But we keep hearing our own local elected officials or business groups peddling the fabrication of the lazy unemployed: “I speak with business leaders daily in Flagler County, who have open jobs that are going unfilled,” the spokesman for a small group trying to replace the defunct chamber of commerce says in a release. “Business leaders believe this is because of covid stimulus and extended unemployment benefits,” and so on. Zero evidence.
Anecdotal stories have their place of course. They may distort reality even as they illustrate perception, which often drives the conversation more than reality does. But without analysis or context the solipsism of the “everyone I know” principle can betray ignorance or prejudice or both: “Business leaders believe…” sure. That doesn’t mean business leaders know, even if we tend to see them as infallible and deific oracles. “And bear in mind,” as Martin Amis put it, “that the people you know are astronomically outnumbered by the people you don’t know.” What CareerSource Flagler Volusia reported via the Observer is solid evidence, however: Only 12 percent of those who filed for unemployment in the Flagler-Volusia area since March 2020 are still getting unemployment, which is borne out by the unemployment rate, now hovering around 5 percent in Flagler for the past several months–close to full employment. If all these people are sitting home, why aren’t the unemployment figures bearing it out?
This, too, is pretty strong evidence: if it were true that unemployment benefits were keeping Floridians home on Florida’s meager checks, then the fatter the checks, the higher the unemployment rate. Somehow, the reverse is true: The most you can get in Florida between federal and state benefits is $575 a week. The unemployment rate is near 5 percent. Workers in Utah and Vermont can get more than $800 a week. Workers in Nebraska and South Dakota, more than $700 a week. You’d think half those states’ workers would be sitting home running out the clock on their “handouts.” Yet those states’ unemployment rates are all 2.9 percent, best in the nation.
These checks aren’t handouts. They’re relief, just like the $50,000 that restaurant I mentioned earlier got as part of the CARES Act: no one should call those checks “handouts,” subsidies or unfair competition. They were an essential bridge back to health, even though undoubtedly a good many businesses took the money just because it was available, not because they needed it (see the list of CARES act checks to local businesses here.) By the same token, don’t smear those getting unemployment benefits, though in Florida it’s difficult to speak of unemployment checks as relief. Scraps, more like it. The last time the Legislature increased the benefit, in July 1997–nearly a quarter century ago–Lawton Chiles was governor. If the weekly benefit had merely kept up with inflation, it would have had to be $457 today.
The Florida Senate wants to raise the weekly benefit to $375, still well short of where it ought to be. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the plan killed. “We’re getting people back to work,” is how he put it. In other words, if you’re unemployed, it’s your fault and all you need is to feel a little more pain to get back out there. You’re the lazy one. It’s a more coded way to convey the slander that “Unemployment insurance is a prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders,” as Ted Kennedy put it in 1980–quoting Ronald Reagan.
Enough fabrications. The unemployed aren’t the enemy. Nor is government. And business isn’t hallowed. It’s an equal partner, no more privileged or sanctified than its lowest-wrung worker. In an economy near full employment, a living wage and a little more respect may be better ways to attract workers than trash-talking them.