As lawmakers debate extending expanded unemployment benefits amid the coronavirus pandemic, some in conservative media have argued for cuts or the outright elimination of these benefits based on the misguided assumption that they are providing a “disincentive” for people to return to work.
Individuals on unemployment have been receiving an additional $600 per week following the passage of the coronavirus relief package in March. Now, that benefit is set to officially expire on July 31 if Congress fails to pass an extension.
Right-wing media’s opposition to the current benefits primarily rests on the assumption that by providing more money than some individuals earned while employed, expanded unemployment benefits are discouraging workers from returning to their jobs. Despite anecdotal reports, research suggests that on the whole, workers are not refusing jobs they would have otherwise taken had these benefits not existed. Instead, the elimination of these benefits could present a far greater threat to the economy than any supposed disincentive.
A failure to extend current benefits could devastate not just the approximately 30 million unemployed Americans, but also a fragile U.S. economy that has benefited from the spending this supplemental income has enabled. In particular, Black and Latinx individuals — who are more likely to have been laid off as a result of the pandemic — would suffer disproportionately from a reduction or elimination of these benefits.
Still, conservative media figures are cheering potential cuts to these benefits in an effort to force people back to work in the hopes of boosting the economy and President Donald Trump’s reelection chances along with it.
Fox figures have argued against extending current benefits
- On July 27, guest host Charles Payne interviewed Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Your World with Neil Cavuto about the negotiations surrounding the next relief package. Payne claimed, “$600 dollars [is] also a massive disincentive for a lot of people to go to work and small businesses are saying, ‘Hey, we’re here; we need workers. Can you help us.’”
- On the same day on America’s Newsroom, guest host Julie Banderas asked Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz whether the forthcoming Republican proposal, including potential cuts to expanded unemployment benefits, “will give Americans an incentive to get back to work.” Chaffetz complained that continuing “enhanced benefits ... yet again will extend unemployment, those numbers will be moving in the wrong direction.” Chaffetz later pointed to anecdotal evidence to support the idea that these benefits were disincentivizing work, claiming a nurse told him that her colleagues were “asking to be let go, asking so they could get this bonus money from the government. That is not the direction it should go.”
- On July 23, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed, “By giving people unemployment insurance and $600, it deemphasizes, I guess, the need to go get a job.” Kilmeade continued, arguing, “There are a lot of times you do have a job and you say I can’t rationalize taking that job making less money for my family instead of the $600 incentive.”
- Economist Art Laffer appeared on America’s Newsroom on July 21 to advocate for a payroll tax cut in the next relief package. While discussing potential relief measures, guest co-anchor Melissa Francis pointed to an anecdotal example to argue that the “super unemployment benefits” disincentivize work. Francis argued, “I know someone who runs a hair salon, for example ,and she was saying that when she called her workers and she asked them to come back that they explained to her very calmly that they were making $900 after tax from the government right now and that if they come back to work they will make less than that.” After Laffer explained his argument for a payroll tax rate reduction, Francis concluded the segment by saying, “You tax what you want to discourage, and we don’t want to discourage work.”
- On July 20, prime-time host Laura Ingraham complained that Republicans are in a “pickle” when it comes to extending unemployment benefits because “people will take the check. If it’s 600 bucks a week and it’s maybe I’ll get a virus if I’m working in the restaurant or the grocery store -- they’ll take the 600 bucks, eight times out of 10. And so, that can’t continue, but you can’t allow a collapse either.” In response, Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee pointed to welfare reform of the 1990s as an example of the type of thinking that should guide lawmakers’ approach to unemployment benefits. As Huckabee explained, “We are not going to give you money for not doing something. It just can’t work like that.”
- On July 9, in response to growing unemployment numbers, Kilmeade wondered “You got to wonder how much longer we can afford to give out that $600 too because that gives more of an incentive to not work as opposed to work.”
- Appearing on America’s Newsroom on July 6, Fox Business host David Asman predicted that the expanded benefits would not be extended and argued that these benefits “did provide a disincentive” to work. Ironically in the same breath, Asman tried to account for job growth reported the previous week despite the supposed disincentive, by arguing “Americans don’t want to take welfare, Americans want to work.”
Conservative talk radio hosts are promoting similarly flawed arguments
- On July 23, host Mark Levin rejected another relief bill altogether, arguing, “We don’t need another stimulus bill. We are funding the wrong things.” Levin continued, quoting from a piece by Conservative Review’s Daniel Horowitz, “Paying people not to work makes it impossible for restaurants or other businesses to find workers.” Levin concluded by arguing, “These are not stimulus bills; these are welfare bills. The Republicans should vote against this. It’s not going to help the economy and it’s not going to help the president.”
- On July 20, host Rush Limbaugh was outraged by a $3 trillion proposal that would extend the expanded unemployment benefits. According to Limbaugh, “The Republican theory is we don’t want to provide a disincentive for people to go back to work. We want people to go back to work. That, by the way, is compassion.” Limbaugh continued, “The sensible thing, which is not the correct thing to do politically, is to pare it down, require an incentive to work rather than providing incentives not to work.”
- On July 15, economist Stephen Moore appeared on America First with Sebastian Gorka to explain that he had advised Trump against extending the expanded unemployment benefits, arguing that it would cost him reelection. Host Sebastian Gorka claimed that receiving this benefit “kills the incentive to go back to work” and Moore agreed, arguing that the current benefits are “stupid economics.”