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The Welfare State Isn’t About Charity

The current round of partisan shadowboxing around unemployment benefits misses the point: the purpose of a real welfare state is to free people from the drudgery, precarity, and misery of low-wage work.

President Joe Biden on May 12, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

After a weekend of pressure from Republicans and various interests within America’s business lobby, Joe Biden yesterday shifted his position on the $300 unemployment benefits going to laid-off workers as part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan.

“We’re going to make it clear,” said Biden partway through remarks on the state of the economy, “that anyone collecting unemployment who is offered a suitable job must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits.” Attempting to thread the needle between defending his plan and instructing the Labor Department to ensure that no one who turns down “suitable” employment qualifies for the payment, Biden cited COVID-19-related exceptions “so that people aren’t forced to choose between their basic safety and a paycheck” while conceding the essence of the business lobby’s argument that unemployment benefits shouldn’t enable people to avoid going back to work. At the same time, he rejected the idea that benefits are causing any kind of labor shortage, while throwing a bone to those who’ve suggested the best way for employers to entice potential hires is to offer better working conditions:

My expectation is that, as our economy comes back, these companies will provide fair wages and safe work environments. And if they do, they’ll find plenty of workers, and we’re all going to come out of this together better than before.

For every comment of this kind, Biden made sure to repeat his main point at least once:

So we’ll insist that the law is followed with respect to benefits, but we’re not going to turn our backs on our fellow Americans.

No one should be allowed to game the system, and we’ll insist the law is followed, but let’s not take our eye off the ball.

Again, the law is clear: if you’re receiving unemployment benefits and you’re offered a suitable job, you can’t refuse that job and just keep getting the unemployment benefits.

All told, the speech was emblematic of the real but still narrow ideological ground which separates America’s two political parties when it comes to the economy: Republicans taking the nakedly cruel position that unemployment benefits should be withdrawn so that poor people will return to badly paid (and potentially unsafe work); Democrats rejecting their arguments while defensively acceding to many of their core premises, the result being somewhat less than coherent. (In this case: unemployment benefits are absolutely not causing workers to stay home and turn down work / we will make absolutely certain that no one who turns down work and stays home will be allowed to collect unemployment benefits).

It remains, of course, to be seen what Biden’s Labor Department will define as “suitable” employment during the weeks ahead. In any case, the latest round of shadowboxing between Democrats and Republicans around unemployment benefits is also highly emblematic of the parochial way America’s political mainstream views social supports, welfare programs, or direct cash payments of any kind. As politicians and journalists debate the finer points of whether the suite of payments contained within the American Rescue Plan (which includes a onetime cash payment of $1,400 as well as unemployment checks) are, or are not, creating a “disincentive” to work, they preclude the possibility that the dreaded d-word may not actually be such a bad thing.

Last year, a series of posts on the r/unemployment subreddit made clear that cash payments from the federal government were allowing many recently laid-off workers to enjoy life for the first time in years. They were finding themselves less depressed. They were eating and sleeping better. They were taking up new hobbies or resuming old ones that the treadmill of endless work had forced them to put aside. They were taking a break, a real break, for the first time in years or even decades.

It’s as good a reminder as any that a properly functioning welfare state allows people to live lives of dignity without the constant threat of destitution forcing them into arduous, badly paid, and unsafe work. The country’s alleged labor shortage may indeed inspire a handful of employers to offer slightly better wages and working conditions in the short term. But a system of real and permanent social supports could give millions of American workers the opportunity to experience life to its fullest for more than a handful of weeks during a once-in-a-generation pandemic.