For the eleventh time since beginning of the economic downturn, Congress is tasked with extending the unemployment insurance program. But the now-familiar fight is set to take on a new flavor this time as a tactic Republicans pushed at the state level elevates into the congressional debate: smearing the unemployed as drug idled and lazy, and inserting provisions designed to harass them.
"There's been a concerted attempt to turn the unemployed into the welfare queen," said Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group. "We've thoroughly demonized welfare recipients so now it seems like they're moving on to the unemployed."
If Congress fails to extend the program by March 6, an estimated six million people who have been jobless for more than six months will be cut off from the insurance program.
Republicans have historically opposed extending the program on the grounds that too much assistance makes people lazy. But they also learned in December that a head-on assault on the program while millions of Americans are unable to find work is terribly unpopular, particularly when Democrats have paired it with a payroll tax cut; GOP leaders are working this week to pull the two issues apart. The extended benefits program covers those who have been unemployed longer than the six months that state jobless programs usually cover.
So this time, rather than blocking the program directly, Republicans have begun attaching a set of provisions to the extension package that will restrict eligibility and malign recipients.
In December, Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, introduced a stand-alone bill that would "require a substance abuse risk assessment and targeted drug testing as a condition for the receipt of unemployment benefits." That proposal did not pass. But a softer version that allows states to conduct drug screens of benefit seekers--as opposed to requiring them do it--did make it through the House, as part of a larger bill that also requires benefit seekers be enrolled in a GED program.
The Senate rejected the bill in December, but the testing proposal and the GED requirement are now on the table in a joint Senate and House conference committee tasked with settling differences on jobless program extension, as well as coming to agreement on how to extend the payroll tax break.
If passed, the provisions would remove a longstanding federal legal principal that bars states from imposing prohibitive and preemptive restrictions on unemployment benefits. Currently, eligibility for unemployment insurance rests only the fact of job loss, and while at least 20 states have laws that exclude jobless folks from receiving benefits if they are fired because of using drugs, states cannot implement laws that screen people out from being hired when applying for jobs.
"The Department of Labor for decades has interpreted that to mean that states can't impose additional qualifications that don't have anything to do with why you lost your job," explained Conti. "Drug testing for eligibility falls into that category."
Congressional Republicans are trying to change the law, creating the space for states to impose these sorts of restrictions. To garner support, they're smearing the image of people who are unemployed.
GOP's Failed Drug Tests
In December, while speaking in support of the provisions on the House floor, Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from New York, said that in his district the unemployed could not get jobs because they were all high. "What I've heard from small business owners across our district is that one of the main reasons that they cannot hire individuals is because they simply cannot pass a drug test," he said.
That's a story line gleaned from the states, where conservatives have put a lot of energy in recent years into lambasting jobless Americans--using demonstrably fallacious accusations. At least 30 state legislatures have considered legislation to require drug testing for unemployment insurance, food stamp and welfare applicants. Where those programs have been used, they've repeated proven a waste.
In September, South Carolina Gov. Nikke Haley told a crowd gathered at a country club breakfast, "I so want drug testing. It's something I've been wanting since the first day I walked into office."
Haley explained that drug use and illiteracy were at the core of the state's jobs problem. She told the crowd that at a job site in the state, "half of [applicants] failed a drug test, and of the half that was left, of that 50 percent, the other half couldn't read and write properly."
Her numbers are pure ideological concoction.
According to a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Energy, which owns the job site the governor mentioned, only 1 percent of applicants failed the test.
"Half the people who applied for a job last year or year 2009 did not fail the drug test," the spokesperson told the Huffington Post. "At the peak of hiring under the Recovery Act we had less than 1 percent of those hired test positive."
Similar outcomes have befallen states that have tried to test unemployed folks. An Indiana law that required applicants for a state job training program to submit to a drug test found that only 1 percent of applicants failed the test. The state poured a lot of money into the embarrassing results: $45,000 to test 1,240 applicants, just 13 of whom failed.
Despite evidence that the drug use stories are a canard, on Tuesday, a South Carolina State House judiciary committee passed a bill that would allow employers to test applicants for drugs. If the applicant fails the test or refuses to take it, their unemployment benefits would be terminated.
South Carolina State Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat, objected in the committee hearing.
"This bill does nothing to put people back to work," Rutherford said, according to the Greenville News. "It simply says if you apply for a job and get hired for a job, this Republican administration is going to make sure you have one more hurdle before you can get that job."
Florida is the only state so far to have passed such a bill. In May, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill requiring applicants to the state's welfare program to urinate in a cup before being approved for the program. Just five months after the bill's passage, a court blocked the law, finding it a violation of the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure. If other states succeed in passing legislation they're likely to face similar constitutional challenges, though state legislators may craft their bills to avoid the Fourth Amendment pitfalls.
The Lazy Lie
Conservative opposition to unemployment insurance is generally based on an ideological fallacy that providing unemployed folks with a cushy fallback takes the pressure off the jobless to pursue work. There's virtually no evidence to support that thinking.
Those enrolled in the program are not unemployed for longer periods than jobless people who don't file for benefits. Further, the average recipient's unemployment check amounts to about half of their prior income--it's no luxury payout. What's more, recent signs of more hiring notwithstanding, there simply aren't enough jobs to go around: for every available job, there remain more than four unemployed Americans who'd like to fill it.
Americans know all of this, which is why extending the unemployment insurance program has broad support. But conservatives know that the best way to attack a safety-net program is to attack those who rely on it. And what better way to do that than paint recipients as addicts without drive?
The strategy is a tried and true one that's taken down other safety net programs.
While the state-level drug testing provisions are primarily symbolic--though no doubt harmfully stigmatizing and gratuitously obstructive to applicants, especially in places where applicants have to pay for their own tests--the GED requirement that's also built into the congressional proposal does threaten to exclude significant numbers of people from the unemployment rolls. The recession has hit people without high school degrees harder than those with more education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that adults who have not graduated from high school are nearly four times as likely to be unemployed as compared to college graduates.
By requiring recipients to have a GED or be enrolled in a GED program, advocates say Congress would erect immediate barriers on the poorest Americans who urgently need help in the face of job loss. Meanwhile, Republicans have done nothing to increase funding for job training programs that are already over-enrolled and under-resourced.