Commentary

NOW they like it: New and stunning hypocrisy from the political right about unemployment insurance

Sometimes, as the saying goes, “you really can’t make this stuff up.” This week’s news offers a classic case in point.

For nearly a decade, North Carolina Republicans, along with their allies in the business lobby and conservative, “free market” think tanks, have done their worst to utterly eviscerate North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system. With devastating effectiveness, conservatives took what once was a middle-of-the-pack safety net program and sent it plummeting to the bottom of national rankings – in terms of eligibility rules, the size of benefits, and the duration that eligible individuals could receive benefits.

To complete the right-wing ideological and psychological blitzkrieg on the system, Republicans transformed what was once designed to be an accessible and service-oriented agency into one that did its utmost to discourage people from applying. Under McCrory-era Division of Employment Security boss (and current state Treasurer) Dale Folwell, dire messages were posted on the agency’s website warning potential applicants that they could be subject to criminal penalties if they provided incorrect information in their applications for benefits.

To put icing on the cake of the ideological assault, Republican legislators repeatedly rejected entreaties from worker advocates asking for modest upgrades to the system and the rules governing benefits and eligibility. On more than one occasion, Republican lawmakers expressed satisfaction that the system had become the nation’s stingiest and even questioned the very idea of public unemployment insurance.

Needless to say, the assault on the system worked. At the end of 2019, less than 9% of unemployed North Carolina workers were receiving unemployment benefits – benefits that averaged a paltry $265 per week. That such a system might not be operating at peak efficiency and be less-than-well-prepared to immediately cope with a massive influx of applicants only stands to reason.

Now, fast forward to April of 2020. As the COVID-19 recession has suddenly sent unprecedented numbers of North Carolina workers into the ranks of the unemployed, some denizens of the political right have suddenly done a giant 180.

Yesterday, the conservative John Locke Foundation published an article in which it criticized DES for being slow in getting benefits to applicants and highlighting the complaints of a dissatisfied applicant who called the current situation “unconscionable.” One Locke staffer then followed that up with a Tweet claiming that Gov. Cooper “has some questions to answer.”

This is simply absurd.

Gov. Cooper has no questions to answer in this area. If anything, Cooper acted with remarkable speed to try to ramp up the agency’s capacity taking action weeks ago to access federal funds to boost the capacity of DES even before the pandemic hit North Carolina. What’s more, DES staff warned legislative budget-makers long before the current crisis that the agency could have problems in responding to a major recession.

The bottom line: Conservatives can’t have it both ways. You can’t do everything in your power over several years to undermine a valuable public structure and then turn around and complain when it doesn’t work like a well-oiled machine under intense pressure.

Unfortunately, as with it has with so many other public structures – most notably, our public schools – that is precisely the cynical and disingenuous approach that the Right has brought to the public policy debate in North Carolina for years.

And from the looks of things, the crisis has done nothing to change the situation.

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