Since March, in one of the highest-profile economic debates in the U.S., Democrats have said increased unemployment benefits help the economy while Republicans have said the extra jobless pay makes things worse by discouraging work.
There’s not much evidence of economic harm, and voters seem to prefer the Democratic argument by a wide margin, according to a new poll by the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Sixty-five percent of survey respondents said they agreed with the statement that the expanded benefits “help the economy by boosting consumer spending and keeping businesses and communities afloat,” while only 35% agreed the benefits “hurt the economy by encouraging people not to work.”
Nearly half (49%) of Republicans said the benefits help, as did 80% of Democrats.
Michael Linden, director of the liberal advocacy group Groundwork Action, which commissioned the poll, said Congress shouldn’t cut the benefits “in the middle of a pandemic while it’s not safe for workers to get back on the job.”
Congress added $600 to weekly unemployment benefits in March as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but the extra money is set to expire on July 31. Congress this month will likely debate another major piece of coronavirus legislation that could extend the higher benefits.
The Data for Progress poll is only the most recent indication of the higher jobless pay’s popularity. Sixty percent of survey respondents told the Pew Research Center last month they favored keeping the extra jobless pay beyond July, and three out of four voters told Morning Consult the benefits should be maintained or increased.
Republicans objected strongly to the benefits from the start, forcing an unsuccessful vote on an amendment saying nobody should receive more in unemployment than they did from their jobs. For many workers, the $600 added to their regular weekly jobless benefits amounts to more than they previously earned.
“Supercharged unemployment benefits have kept the economy afloat and allowed millions of families to pay the rent and buy groceries.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in March the higher benefits would “knock this nation still harder in the coming months by unintentionally increasing unemployment.” The Congressional Budget Office has said employment would be slightly lower if the benefits remain in place for the rest of the year, though economic growth would be higher and people would have more money for food and rent.
But the extra benefits seemingly haven’t held hiring back so far. The past two months of jobs data brought unexpectedly strong gains as stay-at-home orders expired and millions of Americans returned to work. (The Trump administration has encouraged states to disallow people to remain on benefits.) A Brookings Institution analysis of state-level data even suggested that states saw shallower losses and swifter job gains where workers received more generous benefits.
“Supercharged unemployment benefits have kept the economy afloat and allowed millions of families to pay the rent and buy groceries,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said this week. “They are extremely popular with the American people and the data have shown that they have not hindered the economic recovery.”
Republicans have cited many instances of business owners saying they’ve struggled to recall workers receiving higher pay from unemployment compensation ― but there are also anecdotes about workers returning to their jobs despite the lower pay.
Last month, during a hearing on the benefits, Republicans called as a witness Les Neilly, president of a Pennsylvania canvas goods company, who testified that the government shouldn’t pay people more than they earn on the job. He said one of his workers whom he’d called back to work in April complained that his still-unemployed colleagues were receiving more money.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) asked Neilly to elaborate on how the increased jobless pay made it harder to bring workers back and hurt the employer-employee relationship. He may not have gotten the answer he wanted.
Neilly said that once he told his workers at the end of April the company had been approved for forgivable loan from the Paycheck Protection Program ― which requires employers to maintain their payrolls in order for the loan to be forgiven ― everyone came back without complaining.
“I was very happy that no one refused to come back,” he said, “and everybody, when I talked to them, was in agreement and said, ‘Fine, we’ll see you tomorrow.’ So, it was a little bit ― a relief that I didn’t have any pushback from any of them.”