When Senate Republicans came out with their $1 trillion plan for the next round of coronavirus stimulus funding Monday, the most controversial piece was a proposed slash in the federal supplement to state unemployment benefits, from $600 a week to $200. GOP leaders argue that the stipend is so high it encourages the unemployed to refuse to work.
That’s pretty much untrue because: furloughed employees asked to return to work by their employers immediately lose eligibility for unemployment benefits even if they don’t return; there are only about 5.4 million job openings in the United States, according to the federal Department of Labor, but more than 30 million Americans collecting unemployment; many unemployed people are older, suffer from chronic diseases and are shying away from work that exposes them to the coronavirus; many parents can’t return to work because they have no child care.
Most of this is obvious, but for today’s GOP it interferes with their consistent belief that the lazy lower classes want to turn the social safety net into a hammock.
In New York, the state maximum unemployment benefit per week is $504, so with the federal $600 top-earning claimants are getting $1,104. Under the GOP plan that would sink to $704. That’s no one's idea of a fortune, but it’s far worse elsewhere, like the six states where top benefits are less than $300 a week. In Mississippi, where the top state payout is $235, the GOP plan would take the current total maximum of $835 down to $435. Nationally, the average benefit with the federal component is $978, and would sink to $578.
The proposed cut would make it impossible for a lot of families to pay their bills, drag the economy down, and ignore the fact that lots of Americans are gifted with federal benefits in a way that encourages them to avoid working for wages, and the GOP never fights to stop it.
Take Social Security. Established in 1935, it was designed to make sure (mostly male) workers got enough cash to support themselves and their spouses in retirement, so nonworking spouses get an additional benefit equal to half of what the retiring spouse gets.
That means people who have never earned a paycheck or didn’t work for long but are married to people who were employed get a Social Security check equal to half of the one their spouse gets. Often these are people who could stay home because the spouse made enough, but if they needed to work to get Social Security checks, more would.
That's also true with Medicare. You don’t have to contribute payroll taxes to get free health care from age 65 till death as long as you’re married to someone who paid in for 10 years. Why are we encouraging spouses to stay home and laze about by giving them free health care in retirement that can be worth millions?
Then there is the giveaway the GOP is pushing now: $1,200 to every American earning less than $75,000 a year. Why is gifting so many people who haven’t lost jobs more important than continuing a lifeline to those who have?
You’d think the answer must be politics, but even that makes little sense. Fighting to cut benefits Democrats are fighting to keep for more than 30 million unemployed Americans feels like electoral suicide.
But if it’s not politics, it must be principle. The Republicans seem to believe the unemployed are lazy, even when the reason these people are not working is too few jobs or too much danger.
That's wrong, and it's cruel to boot.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.