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Workers Should Not Have to Return to Terrible Low Wage Jobs


Leo Gertner and Shaun Richman are right. Unemployment insurance should be permanently changed to add this $600 a week. If employers don’t like it, they can actually create jobs people want to work at.

Do we have a right not to work? The answer is we don’t if Democratic leaders stubbornly try to keep the “era of big government” confined to the 20th century.

Think of a barista right now in Georgia. She’s home collecting unemployment and watching her two kids while the schools and the cafe where she worked are closed. Her boss says they’re reopening next week even as the coronavirus continues its deadly spread, but schools won’tGovernor Kemp, along with other GOP governors, is using the horrifying tactic of threatening to kick workers off unemployment insurance if they don’t return to their jobs. What should she do?

This is the stark choice many workers are left with in post-”big government” America. Return to work and face a deadly virus when intensive-care beds are already nearly full in Georgia and her kids are alone, or stay home and risk losing all income. That so much of the current tension around a healthcare crisis focuses on a patchwork of complex, underfunded state unemployment programs speaks to the dearth of programs and policy tools available to sustain people when work is scarce or conditions are miserable.

Most people’s experiences with the stinginess and arcane rules of our nation’s patchwork of unemployment systems have conditioned us to assume that we’re not eligible and that we should be discouraged from applying, even under desperate circumstances. Blame it on steady erosion of our more than 80-year-old New Deal-era safety net and the decades of attacks on the idea of welfare, capped by Bill Clinton’s era-ending declaration that accompanied the catastrophic 1996 reform bill he signed into law with support of many Congressional Democrats, including our presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Our current crisis has exposed two flawed premises around how we think about money: that not all workers deserve enough of it to live on and that the government is incapable of providing it. Like our flagship retirement programs for those over 65 years old, Social Security and Medicare, income replacement can and should be for everyone. Universal, or near-universal, programs like unemployment insurance and Social Security are popular for a reason. They provide much-needed sustenance and promote the idea that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met. Newer social programs have been replaced by stingier, more complicated models that means-test who “deserves” life-saving support. This breeds both unnecessary administrative burdens and resentment between voters who should be united in trying to improve conditions. According to One Fair Wage, 44% of all applicants for pandemic unemployment still haven’t received their benefits.

The right not to work is something that we should all have. It should be a feature of the future welfare state that the left advocates for. I am all about a government-guaranteed job at a good wage. These things aren’t mutually exclusive even if they don’t necessarily mesh together smoothly either. But if the jobs are bad and you don’t want to work them, you should be able to survive in a dignified manner.

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