How Kansans can refute politicians’ cruel notions about unemployment benefits

May 14, 2021 3:33 am

On May 7, Kansas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt posted this picture on Facebook with the caption: “All across Kansas, I hear the same story: Employers have jobs available but can’t find people to take them. This sign is on the Subway in downtown Topeka – which is temporarily closed ‘due to lack of staffing.'”

I’d like to suggest a different way to think about the Republican vs. Democrat skirmish of the week.

This week, it’s about cutting off the extra $300-a-week COVID-19 federal unemployment benefit because businesses are now complaining that they can’t find workers.

It started here after the occasionally incompetent Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who initially inherited his job after accused sex-offender and current United States Senate candidate Eric Greitens resigned, added cruelty to his resume, jumping on a bandwagon with other Republican governors to stop the supplemental payments in June.

Gov. Laura Kelly was obviously monitoring the eastern border. On Wednesday morning, before Kansans even had a chance to pay much attention to what Missouri was doing, her office sent a context-less statement to media outlets, saying it could be “attributed to the governor’s spokesperson.”

“At this time,” it read, “Governor Kelly does not intend to end the federal unemployment benefit programs early. While the Governor will monitor this situation closely over the coming months, her primary focus remains on continuing her administration’s record-setting efforts recruiting new businesses and jobs to Kansas.”

Kelly encouraged job-seeking Kansans to explore their options at kansasworks.com.

Meanwhile, Kansas Republicans piled on with Parson.

There was our U.S. Senator Roger Marshall, once again espousing his wisdom.

“Homes aren’t being built because of a lack of labor and hotels are turning away business because they don’t have employees,” he said. “Even the broader supply chain is beginning to feel the impacts.”

“Policies championed by Democrats that embrace permanent welfare will dramatically thin our workforce, cripple small businesses and rob capable individuals of the dignity that comes with hard work. We cannot sustain this,” said U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner.

Absent from much of the rhetoric, this time anyway, is the usual Republican pledge to stand up for working families, for whom a job at the nearest Subway might end up costing more than it pays.

Let’s have a smarter conversation.

Let’s remember the pandemic may be changing the U.S. economy in ways we are only beginning to understand.

“Think of hotels and business travel,” economist and University of Kansas professor Donna Ginther told me back in February. “Everybody’s been using Zoom for a year, so why fly staff all over the country and put them up in hotels, which costs thousands of dollars, when you can schedule a Zoom meeting?”

To be smarter when you’re talking about this with your neighbors and relatives — or just to cleanse your mind of tired LaTurnerisms — I have a couple of recommended readings.

The first is a thoroughly informed and data-backed piece by the great Kansas City writer Liz Cook, whose Haterade newsletter is some of the smartest and most entertaining food writing in the country.

“The Restaurant Staffing Crunch Is Real. Scapegoating Unemployment Insurance Won’t Help,” was her headline on May 3. “The benefits shaming will continue until morale improves.”

In that installment, Cook reported on the mood of current and former restaurant workers and mined unemployment data to address the reasons we might be seeing a fundamental shift in the industry. Her extrapolations, I think, might apply to other low-pay service-sector industries where people are beginning to understand that being considered an “essential” worker might oughta come with better pay and treatment.

The second recommended reading is a New York Times essay that’s haunted me since I read it in October 2019. That’s when Monica Potts, a native of Clinton, Arkansas, returned to her hometown after living on the east coast for a couple of decades and observed how people had grown to resent the idea of government assistance.

“Many here seem determined to get rid of the last institutions trying to help them, to keep people with educations out, and to retreat from community life and concentrate on taking care of themselves and their own families,” she wrote.

The specific conflict Potts wrote about was whether to pay a new head librarian, a woman with a master’s degree, $25 an hour.

Like so many other fights, the library fight in Potts’ hometown was about so many other things. That included, she wrote, “what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here. The answer was, for the most part, not very much.”

The resentment Potts observed sound a lot like what Republicans say about people who’d supposedly rather give up their dignity by “embracing permanent welfare” than go back to work. Or arguments against expanding Medicaid because “able bodied” people might take advantage of tax-payer-funded government health care.

Maybe you have an anecdote about someone you know who abuses the system (I don’t). But if all you see are people who would abuse the system, you probably need a new community. Or you’re just a politician trying to make people mad at their neighbors.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.