DEBERRY: Did the ‘hardworking Louisianians’ that politicians praise up and decide to become less so?

Rhetoric regarding unemployment doesn’t jibe with the facts

August 13, 2020 7:00 am

GOP senators, including Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said that it was “entirely inappropriate” for the National School Boards Association to ask for a review of whether crimes are being committed under various statutes including the PATRIOT Act, which is aimed at deterring terrorism. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

You’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t described the people he or she represents as hardworking.  That modifier is such a part of the political lexicon that it’s rarely noticed.  It’s similar in that regard to the way that every governor claims to lead  “the great state of…whatever.” In political speech, everybody here is hardworking.  Loafers live way over there.

However, the new coronavirus pandemic and its corresponding epidemic of unemployment has given us reason to wonder if the politicians who call their constituents “hardworking” really believe they are.

The CARES Act that passed in March included a provision adding a $600 weekly boost from the federal government to the unemployment insurance benefits paid out by the individual states, and from the very beginning, some Republicans in Congress complained that that much money would encourage people to ditch their jobs and stay home.

Nevermind that ditching one’s job is not how one qualifies for unemployment. Nevermind that the folks in question were receiving unemployment benefits because they had been working and paying their bills and all of a sudden were not and could not. And nevermind that, theoretically, paying people to stay home and away from work as a deadly and contagious virus spreads would be an excellently humane expenditure for a government committed to keeping the maximum number of people alive and healthy.

But the month after the $600 was approved, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said such an amount would only be reauthorized “over our dead bodies.”  His Republican colleagues from Louisiana have also expressed opposition.

In June, Politico quoted U.S. Sen John Kennedy:  “We’re never going to recover economically from the pandemic if everybody is at home watching Netflix.” Another bill paying out $600, he said was “ Not going to happen. Nonnegotiable.”

In a July statement, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy started out with empathy.  “We have to take care of families as they struggle to keep their lives together,” he said. But he followed that with this: “But at the same time, we cannot incentivize people not to work. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for their job skills.”

Describing them as couch potatoes? Paternalistically telling them that the money they want won’t actually help them?  Now, is that any way to talk about the hardworking folks from the great state of Louisiana?

Maybe the senators think that everybody else in the country is lazy, but they can’t limit aid to them without also hurting the more industrious folks here.

Republicans aren’t the only ones who think unemployed Louisianians need a push and some tough love.  Gov. John Bel Edwards has decided that it’s time for the state’s unemployed residents to look for work.   It is time to get those who can work back into a job,” the governor said at an Aug. 6 press conference.  “There are several thousand jobs available in Louisiana and so that’s what we are trying to do now.”

People receiving unemployment typically have to look for work to receive benefits, but that requirement had been wisely suspended earlier during the pandemic. But the governor’s decision to reimplement that requirement led to a video from the Louisiana Workforce Commission announcing: “WORK SEARCH IS BACK!

The all caps and the exclamation point combine to form a message that’s  every bit as condescending as Cassidy’s statement about what’s good for people. The faux cheeriness of the announcement has all the emotional sincerity of a parent telling a toddler, “Today you get to go get your shots!”

Do our leaders think that the folks receiving unemployment are relishing their unemployment? There’s no evidence that people declining work make up a sizable percentage of the unemployed.

The National Federation of Independent Business  (after taking a random sample of 300,000 small business owners) says 18 percent of them have had employees decline returning work to remain on uninsurance. Six percent of them have had to — imagine this — increase what they pay to persuade workers to return during a killer pandemic.

But a group of economists at Yale University studied the effects of unemployment insurance generosity on  employment and said, “We find no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work either at the onset of the expansion or as firms looked to return to business over time.”

What’s more, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey finds that while 1,746,584 Louisiana adults were unemployed between July 16 and 21, only 26,180 (or a measly 1.5 percent) reported being unemployed because they didn’t want to work.

People who’d been laid off or furloughed and people whose employer had either shut down temporarily or gone out of business accounted for 28 percent of the state’s unemployed adults.   Another 8 percent reported being sick with coronavirus symptoms, caring for somebody sick with those symptoms or being afraid of getting or spreading the virus. And another 8 percent reported caring for children who were not in school or daycare.

None of those people need to be scolded, talked down to or nudged out of the nest and into the workforce. 

You wouldn’t think Cassidy, Edwards or Kennedy would have to be told these things.  Because, after all, nobody works as hard as folks in the great state of Louisiana.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.