The enduring cruelty of NC Republicans’ broken unemployment insurance program

The most stirring moment of this week’s soporific rehash of NC’s cruelly outmoded unemployment system was, alas, its last.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, the lone Democrat on the joint committee, urged lawmakers to revisit their gouging 2013 cuts to the unemployment program, which today ranks NC among the stingiest in the nation. 

In those heady days, when conservatives didn’t have to worry about pesky things like a veto from the governor, legislators reduced the size and duration of unemployment checks ostensibly to assuage a $2.7 billion debt to the federal government. NC was one of numerous states to sink into debt during the recession as employers jettisoned workers, although you get the distinct feeling these days that some of these hardliners might have done so just for yuks too.

General Assembly leadership has been loath to reconsider the system today—even Nickel’s modest proposal this week that NC adjust payments for inflation—despite a resurgent economy and $3 billion socked away in the program’s savings. 

“We are way past the crisis,” said Nickel. “I would love to have some of this money go into the economy.”

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The cruelties of 2013 are just as cruel, indeed more so, if they endure in 2020.[/perfectpullquote]

Rep. Julia Howard, the 16-term Republican from Davie County who co-chairs the committee, seemed to bristle at the Democrat’s overtures, chiding Nickel for his “very aggressive position” in his first meeting with the panel. 

“You weren’t here,” Howard told Nickle. “Some of us were.” 

Howard’s co-chair, Sen. Andy Wells, adjourned the meeting before Nickel could respond publicly, although I doubt Nickel and Howard were disagreeing so mightily over the last season of “Dancing With the Stars” when they huddled in the committee chambers afterward. 

Howard’s patronizing retort aside, the workers of North Carolina care very little about how many terms the Mocksville Republican has served in Raleigh. If House and Senate leadership deigned to include more Democrats on the joint committee, any number of those would likely say the same to Howard, but that’s beside the point.

N.C. Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, Rowan

The cruelties of 2013 are just as cruel, indeed more so, if they endure in 2020. Seven years ago, lawmakers could at least point to ballooning federal debt as cover, but the economy has long since recovered and the state’s debt is long gone. What cover remains?  

The conflict over NC’s cellar-dwelling unemployment benefits is not borne of Nickel’s inexperience or Howard’s experience, but of an utter disconnect in philosophy. 

Telling Republicans that their benefits are as cheap as any offered in the United States hardly matters. You might as well hand over a banner proclaiming: “Mission Accomplished.” There is little, if any, regard for social welfare programs in these chambers.

And while conservatives in other states might adopt similar postures, few have been so cruelly methodical in exacting their vision, with NC’s payments being on average about $264 a week, ranking 51st in the nation. Such a pittance makes sense if you are in the habit of eating about five times a week.   

There are Republicans in the General Assembly, perhaps even on this committee, who would reduce NC’s miserly payments further if they had the opportunity. Some might dismantle the program entirely.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Indeed, if these Republicans were circus owners, they would lose the net beneath the trapeze artists too because, you know, Ayn Rand.[/perfectpullquote]

For all the Xeroxed wonk of these proceedings, there is real blood in this ink. But if empathy for the unemployed does not move the GOP, regard for our economy should.

Just as with Medicaid expansion, Republicans disregard their hearts and their heads because unemployment insurance stabilizes workers and states during downturns.  Such programs buffer states from the waxing and waning of the economy.

Indeed, if these Republicans were circus owners, they would lose the net beneath the trapeze artists too because, you know, Ayn Rand.

The cries for change are not simply the bleating, bleeding-heart liberals. Our economy is not the better for this characteristic cupidity. It only increases the risk that workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own are more likely to land in poverty or leave the employment sector altogether.

A report last year from the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center (Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit) found the program feckless too, with less than 10% of the state’s jobless actually receiving unemployment, last in the nation.

An impoverished workforce is a detriment to all. It is not a matter of progressivism or conservativism, but of responsibility. 

Rather than raising taxes on employers in 2013, the choice was made by Republicans and ex-Gov. Pat McCrory to rend NC’s unemployment program to shreds, to place the burden of an economic recession on workers and not employers. The GOP has made that same choice every year since. Based on Howard’s withering disregard this week, they will do it again in 2020. 

But they should not be able to do so without our concern, our chagrin, and, if they choose not to act, our condemnation. 

The problem, Rep. Howard, is not that the Democrat on your committee finds fault in your unemployment policies, or that there is even a Democrat on your committee. The problem is that in 2020 there is little reason for these closefisted policies other than callousness.  

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