Republicans want to punish Americans for not working—but it doesn't make economic sense | Opinion

In March, Congress increased unemployment benefits by $600 per week to keep families, and our economy, afloat during this pandemic. Earlier this week, the last checks went out.

Renewing these payments, as Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed, is essential to our economic recovery. The payments have propped up demand and prevented further job loss. But renewal is also good politics: the benefits are extremely popular with the public, including nearly half of Republican voters polled. So why are Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration marching forward with a plan to slash the incomes of 30 million Americans receiving enhanced benefits despite the obvious economic and political benefits of the program?

It's simple: conservatives, and even some liberals, hate the idea that unemployed Americans—and particularly Black and brown unemployed Americans—aren't being punished for not working. The idea that some unemployed workers are bringing in a little more income per week in unemployment than they did in wages in their previous jobs just doesn't sit well with many folks. On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin went so far as to say that it would be unfair "to use taxpayer dollars to pay people [more] to sit home than they would working..." These payments cut against the deeply held belief that only work is a valuable, and paid labor for private employers most valuable of all. It's an idea as old as capitalism itself—and it continues to influence this debate even during a pandemic when, for many Americans, working simply isn't safe.

In the current moment, this powerful ideology is on display in the debate around whether enhanced unemployment insurance payments are a disincentive to work. There is no evidence of this. The latest research finds no correlation between the generosity of unemployment benefits and job finding. Current high unemployment rates are the result of a jobs shortage, not a sudden widespread lack of motivation. Nevertheless, the myth that benefits are discouraging work has taken hold in some circles, and senior officials in the Trump administration were recently reported to be tinkering with the unemployment benefits formula in an attempt to solve this "problem."

The truth is that Conservative opposition to expanded unemployment benefits may have less to do with the amount of the benefits than who they think is receiving them. It's impossible to disentangle the politics of the safety net from the anti-Blackness that indelibly shapes them.

Decades of social science research has shown that racial attitudes, conscious or not, are one of the most important determinants of whites' attitudes toward the safety net. In short, white Americans think recipients of safety net programs are primarily Black (despite the fact that the majority of recipients are white) and that Blacks are lazy and undeserving of assistance. Recent research also suggests that when whites perceive threats to their relative advantage, their racial resentment increases, in turn leading to heightened opposition to safety net programs. These perceived threats may be particularly acute during, but are not suddenly caused by, economic downturns like the current one.

Conservatives have long recognized the association between racism and support for the safety net, and have actively weaponized racist stereotypes in the service of their broader agenda to dismantle it. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" is the canonical example, but this is far bigger than Reagan: Whites' belief that Blacks were lazy has been used to justify policies, like slavery, that coerce Black work for centuries. Modern work requirement policies for federal assistance, a particular obsession of the Trump administration, were actually born of a political compromise between New Deal reformers and Southern Democrats who wanted to ensure that Blacks did not have access to New Deal cash assistance programs like Aid to Dependent Children. This racist exclusion aimed at Black people, by propping up anti-safety-net ideology for generations, has also spilled over and harmed every other marginalized group in the U.S.

The Trump Administration's current threat to cut unemployment benefits, justified by the myth that these benefits are disincentivizing work, is just the latest in a long conservative tradition of attacking the social safety net by relying on faulty, racist stereotypes. Democrats in Congress should not fall into their trap. They should hold the line on a clean extension of the $600 benefit and make clear that extending these benefits will not hobble long-term economic recovery, but cutting or capping them will. They should also force Republicans in Congress to acknowledge that their hatred of the new expanded benefits has less to do with their generosity than with their perceived recipients.

Dr. Lindsay Owens is a fellow at the Great Democracy Initiative. She is an economic policy expert with a focus on housing, inequality, and labor. She previously served as a top adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.