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Work-for-Welfare Gains Traction Among Republicans

National Review

May 3, 2023

Last week, U.S. House Republicans included expanded work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps, and cash welfare benefits in their legislation to extend the federal debt limit. As employers continue to struggle to find workers, states, too, are trying to prod benefit recipients on the sidelines of the economy back into work.

Republican members of the Wisconsin assembly recently approved a series of bills that would tighten access to state unemployment-insurance (UI) checks, arguing that these changes are needed to help recipients more quickly return to work.

It’s easy to understand the demand for such policies. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate fell to a record low of 2.5 percent in March, even as the state’s labor-force-participation rate fell in the past year from 65.3 percent to 64.6 percent. The U.S. Department of Labor last Wednesday reported that there currently are twice as many job openings (174,000) as unemployed persons in the state (almost 83,000).

To qualify for weekly checks, UI requires claimants to be able to work and available, to have been laid off through no fault of their own, and to be searching for employment. States determine the size of weekly checks, the number of weeks during which checks will be payable, and the terms of state payroll taxes needed to cover benefit costs.

When unemployment rates rise, as they did during the pandemic, individuals who exhaust UI also receive extended state and federal benefits. Federal pandemic-era unemployment benefits soared to a record $700 billion, far eclipsing state-UI spending. Two-thirds of the federal spending went toward unprecedented weekly $600 (and later $300) federal bonuses paid on top of UI and other unemployment checks. That resulted in millions of recipients collecting more in benefits than they would have earned from returning to work.

Some have argued that government largesse has contributed to ongoing labor shortages. The bills approved by the Wisconsin assembly would tighten the terms for individuals collecting UI and other benefits in several ways. They would strengthen the UI job-search requirement, so that those who consistently fail to show up to interviews or to respond to interview requests become ineligible for benefits; require the state to audit at least 50 percent of claimants’ job searches; update what is considered fireable misconduct (to include unauthorized use of a company credit card, destruction of records, and violation of company social-media policies); require claimants to verify their identity prior to filing an initial claim for benefits; rebrand “unemployment insurance” as “reemployment insurance” and provide all UI claimants job counseling to help them return to work; and bar localities from using tax dollars to operate universal basic income–like guaranteed-income programs, which provide income without requiring work or job training.

It’s noteworthy that both the state and federal efforts to strengthen work requirements for welfare benefits have drawn support from an April 4 ballot measure in Wisconsin. That measure asked, “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?” Almost 80 percent of Wisconsin voters answered yes. During last week’s debt-limit debate in Congress, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R., La.) read the Wisconsin ballot measure on the House floor, arguing that it proves that voters favor expanded work requirements for welfare benefits — as the House-passed debt-limit bill would deliver.

But even though the ballot measure specifically cited “welfare benefits,” Wisconsin Republicans have used it to argue for strengthening work requirements for UI checks, too. On introducing their unemployment bills, Wisconsin state senator Romaine Robert Quinn and state representative Warren Petryk noted the “overwhelming support at the polls” from Wisconsin voters seeking “to ensure that the state continues to focus on assisting people in finding work.” “As the state battles the current labor shortage, we must ensure that all of our state’s benefit programs provide the tools needed for people to successfully seek and find re-employment,” they concluded.

The unemployment measures now head to the Wisconsin senate for consideration. Democratic governor Tony Evers has vetoed similar legislation in the past, so its prognosis remains in doubt. Similarly, there is no assurance that the work requirements included in the House-passed debt-limit extension will make it into the final deal negotiated with the Senate and White House. But the two-front battle suddenly being waged to expand work requirements for key public benefits — and the popular ballot measure backstopping it — is hard to ignore, and it’s a welcome development.

About the Author

Matt Weidinger