Following a disappointing new report showing the U.S. economy added only 266,000 jobs in April, many in the mainstream media were quick to suggest that a key factor to the slow job growth is overly generous pandemic-related unemployment benefits -- echoing a common right-wing media talking point that serves to demonize workers. Despite a lack of evidence pointing to a conclusive finding for these low numbers, many analyses prioritized questioning unemployment benefits while downplaying the low wages, lack of benefits, and exploited labor that many businesses rely on.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released a report showing employers added only 266,000 jobs in April, far short of the 1 million jobs that many economists predicted for the month. Business groups including the Chamber of Commerce were quick to blame unemployment benefits provided during the pandemic for the low job numbers; the chamber swiftly called for an end to the $300-per-week federal benefit, saying, “Paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market.”
Republicans were also quick to blame unemployment benefits following the disappointing job reports. Republican governors in several GOP-led states have announced that they are cutting off pandemic aid that was set to expire in September, in a move that some economists have called a “huge mistake.”
The idea that unemployment benefits are the primary factor driving the low new job numbers is not immediately evident from the report. There are other factors to consider as to why people may not be returning to work, including the ongoing coronavirus threat and a lack of child care, and it’s difficult to draw any total conclusions. Additionally, as Business Insider reported, “the biggest rebound in April was in leisure and hospitality; this was the third-consecutive month of job gains for this sector. Most of the jobs added in leisure and hospitality were from food services and drinking places,” or jobs most expected to be impacted by unemployment benefits.
Blaming unemployment benefits also misses the fact that many business owners “just assume the existence of an endless pool of low-paid labor,” as Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal pointed out. ABC summarized a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute on the supposed labor shortage, writing, “A more likely reason some employers aren't attracting workers is that many of these businesses are offering too-low wages. In a true labor shortage, the report states, wages will rise as does competition among employers. But wages aren't growing -- at least not quickly enough." And while many prominent business and political leaders would prefer to blame unemployment benefits as opposed to calling for higher wages, Los Angeles Time columnist Michael Hiltzik also called out this argument:
No one is disputing that some employers are having difficulties recruiting workers. Nonfarm employment rose in April by a meager 266,000, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. This confounded economists who had expected a second straight month of employment gains of more than 900,000.
Yet the statistic sent a mixed signal. Employment growth was actually strongest among restaurants, bars and hotels (up by 331,000). That’s the sector where employers are squealing the loudest about their inability to recruit staff. It was down in manufacturing and in professional and business services, where wages tend to be higher than in hospitality and leisure.
“Employers simply don’t want to raise wages high enough to attract workers,” observes Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist for the Department of Labor who is now policy director at the labor-affiliated Economic Policy Institute. “I often suggest that whenever anyone says, ‘I can’t find the workers I need,’ she should really add, ‘at the wages I want to pay.’”
Still, business groups and Republicans were not the only ones to immediately point to unemployment benefits as the root cause of the low jobs report; conservative media have long pushed “welfare queen” tropes and are still using them to demonize those on unemployment benefits as lazy. But mainstream journalists also questioned whether unemployment benefits were too “generous,” asking the Biden administration officials if they plan to alter the benefits and suggesting that benefits disincentivize work.
Many of these analyses did not question the exploitative wages and benefits offered by many businesses that are contributing to difficulties in hiring. Some anchors and guests also pushed “anecdotal” stories from business leaders and owners blaming unemployment benefits for their failure to find workers willing to work for them.
- In an interview with former White House Council of Economic Advisers member Austen Goolsbee, CNN anchor Erin Burnett quoted the Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Business criticizing the unemployment benefits and said, “This does seem, when you look at it this way, to be a big problem.” After Goolsbee pointed out that the data doesn’t quite support that conclusion and that the chamber has a history of blaming unemployment benefits, Burnett played an “anecdotal” montage of business owners pointing to unemployment benefits as a primary factor in labor shortages.
- Shortly after the jobs report was released, MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle asked Council of Economic Advisers member Heather Boushey if she thinks “adjustments need to be made to the way unemployment works.”
- CNN anchor Kate Bolduan asked Jason Furman, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, if he thinks the jobs report is a “signal” that “the extended government jobless benefits to millions of people were too generous.”
- On CBS’ Face the Nation, guest anchor John Dickerson told Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that “there are a lot of people who believe that the unemployment relief … is hurting the job market.” Dickerson asked if there is “any discussion within the administration about tweaking that or doing anything to remove that as a barrier to jobs.” Dickerson also brought up Republican governors ending unemployment benefits and said that “a lot of people out there” think that “unemployment benefits are an impediment to getting people to go look for work.”
- CNN anchor Michael Smerconish acknowledged other factors like COVID-19 and child care playing a role in the slow jobs number increase, but said that he’s received a “torrent of calls from small-business owners” who “absolutely believe that government money has disincentivized the workforce.” His guest, Wall Street Journal reporter Eric Morath, agreed that the “feeling among businesses is that the enhanced unemployment benefits are providing a large disincentive,” adding, “I think that it’s certainly the case for lower wage jobs.”
- On CNN’s The Lead, CNN Business’ Richard Quest said he’s been “anecdotally” hearing from business owners that they can’t find work because “people are being very picky” and using benefits. Quest added that while “this might not be a particularly pleasant argument for liberals or a socially acceptable argument at the moment,” the “evidence” shows that unemployment benefits are “potentially acting as a disincentive in certain key industries,” adding, “It’s a fact.” When anchor Jake Tapper asked Financial Times’ Rana Foroohar about Republican states cutting unemployment benefits, Foroohar compared the issue to differences in states' minimum wages and said that she’s “for states being able to have a little bit of flexibility to deal with the problems that they have.”