Are the majority of Americans lazy and averse to work? Would they prefer not to work and to enjoy a free ride from the government?
How we answer this question, or how congressional leaders answer it, has a lot to do with what is really life-or-death legislation coming out of Washington, particularly with regards to COVID-19 relief packages.
Republicans have long held to the view that people are generally lazy and need then incentive of necessity, of avoiding suffering, to seek work. We can see that how Americans’ attitudes toward work are understood and characterized has a lot to do, at root, with their policy decisions.
In the current context, the dominant and well-worn Republican misconception that Americans are lazy and prefer not to work is blatantly evident in the resistance of the Senate’s Republican majority to pass legislation to help the mass of Americans suffering economically, because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, meet their most basic needs.
Consider the recent congressional saga of Democrats’ efforts to address the economic devastation Americans—and America—are enduring.
Last May House Democrats passed the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion relief package designed to address the multitude of needs and suffering the COVID-19 epidemic—and Trump’s mismanagement of it—have brought on Americans. The legislation entailed assistance for essential front-line workers, including hospitals, $1 trillion in payments to state, local and tribal governments which have been hard-hit by the economic shutdown, and an extension of the enhanced unemployment benefits provided in last March’s $2.2 trillion dollar relief package, among other relief provisions.
At the time, Trump declared the proposed legislation dead on arrival. Republicans dismissed the HEROES Act as a liberal wish list.
Meanwhile, even though House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi characterized the legislation as reflecting 80% of bi-partisan priorities and as a place to begin the conversation, Republicans have been silent about addressing the dire need threatening American lives at this moment, letting the legislation languish without serious response or engagement.
And yet even Wall Street recognizes the massive level of economic devastation Americans are enduring. Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan referred to this moment as “the most tumultuous period since the Great Depression.”
Last week 1.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, and the unemployment rate is hovering over 11%, the highest rate since the Great Depression, as 32 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits.
Nonetheless, with the enhanced unemployment benefits on verge of expiring at the end of month, Republicans are loath to approve legislation extending them.
Why? Because Americans need to get back to work and stop being lazy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given his assurance that whatever the Senate passes will look nothing like the $3 trillion package the House of Representatives passed and will definitely not include the $600 dollar boost to unemployment benefits the March relief package provided because, in his words, it would “make it more lucrative not to work than to work.”
Texas Senate Republican John Cornyn echoed this sentiment last month in a hearing when he said, “We should never pay people not to work. We should try to help people get back to work.”
Great. But currently there are three times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings.
As Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute points out, “Cutting off the $600 cannot incentivize people to get jobs that aren’t there.”
And do Americans really not have an incentive to find work?
First of all, having a job is a great source if dignity to people. And even economically, unemployment benefits are not a disincentive to work; in many cases, they do not cover the needs of American families.
Keep in mind that millions of Americans lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. This July 32% of U.S. households could not make their full housing payment, making the fourth month in a row of “historically high” numbers of Americans unable to meet these payments.
And back to the question, do Americans prefer not to work?
Throughout my lifetime, I have seen the opposite. I can remember as a child in the 1980s, while those in my family complained about lazy workers, an episode when 2,000 people waited in below-freezing temperatures to apply for a handful of jobs at the Sheraton hotel in Chicago.
And we see this scenario quite often.
Back in 2014, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a gubernatorial debate, defended his record of having created only 5,800 jobs (against a loss of 13,000!) when he promised 250,000 for Wisconsin, by asserting, “We don’t have a jobs problem; we have a work problem.” If Wisconsin citizens weren’t so lazy and possessed some initiative, Governor Walker would have created another 250,000 jobs!
Similarly, Republican lightning rod Newt Gingrich, in the height of the Great Recession in November 2011, dismissively admonished Occupy Wall Street protesters to “take a bath” and “get a job,” while around the country, from 2009 through 2012 the country witnessed the following scenes: in May 2012, 20,000 people applied for one of 877 jobs at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama; in Summer 2011, 18,000 people applied for one of 1,800 jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville; also in 2011, more than 41,000 people applied for one of 1,300 jobs at a new Toyota plant in Tupelo, Mississippi; in 2009, 65,000 people applied for one of 2,700 jobs at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
These scenes suggest Americans would much prefer the dignity of a job with benefits than being jobless and collecting a payment that cannot support their families.
The Republican hatred of American workers either blinds them to, or motivates them to lie about, this basic reality.
But we need to recognize it is this basic antipathy, and this distorted belief that people are lazy, that undergirds the humanly hostile Republican policy-making.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.